Oops! They’ve done it again...

The Academy of Country Music, long regarded as a firebrand outlier, has dropped a slate of unprecedented nominations for the 56th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, to be broadcast from Nashville Sunday, 4/18.

Beyond an all-female selection of Single of the Year nods, four Black artists—Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton and John Legend—are vying for awards, across four different categories.

Reigning ACM Female Artist of the Year Maren Morris and two-time Male Artist of the Year Chris Stapleton both received six nominations. Morris’ “The Bones,” an anthemic, soul-grounded homage to a relationship’s strong foundation, brought in Song of the Year and Single of the Year nods, as well as a writer nomination for Song. Morris also picked up a nomination for Group of the Year for her role in The Highwomen and a shot at Video of the Year for “Better Than We Left It.”

Stapleton, long a touring and critics’ favorite who is nonetheless rarely heard on radio, scores his third Entertainer of the Year nomination to go with his Male Artist of the Year nod. He also receives producer and artist nominations for Album of the Year for Starting Over and songwriter and artist acknowledgment for Song of the Year for the title track.

Perennial favorite Miranda Lambert, the ACM’s leading award winner and nominee, picks up five more chances to triumph. Along with her 15th nomination for Female Artist of the Year, an award she’s won nine times, her optimism-spilling “Bluebird” notches Single, Song and Video of the Year nods, with a second Song nomination for Lambert as writer.

With Ashley McBryde and co-Entertainer of the Year Thomas Rhett earning four nominations each, the next wave of emerging artists and recently arrived superstars is making its presence felt. Rhett, nominated for Entertainer and Male Artist, sees his “Be a Light” earn a Music Event nod and receives Song recognition for co-writing Old Dominion’s “Some People Do.”

If not a new world order, an awful lot of artists broke through, categories shifted and singer/songwriters who make music on their own terms were recognized.

McBryde’s quartet of nominations is especially significant. Tattooed, raised on a 400-acre Arkansas cattle farm and advised to lose 20 pounds in initial meetings with labels, she has emerged as an "everywoman" admired for her outsider authenticity. The Female Artist of the Year nominee picks up Album of the Year acknowledgment for Never Will and writer and artist nominations for Song of the Year for blue-collar entanglement “One Night Standards.”

Historically leaning toward the progressive, Album of the Year is filled out with first-time-in-the-category nominees Kane Brown for Mixtape Vol. 1 and Brothers Osborne for Skeletons, as well as multiple ACM winner Luke Bryan for Born Here Live Here Die Here.

Single of the Year also reflects the ACM’s independent streak—the category is strictly populated by women this year. In addition to Lambert’s “Bluebird” and Morris’ “The Bones,” they include Ingrid Andress for the Grammy-nominated “More Hearts Than Mine,” Gabbie Barrett for the global “I Hope” and Carly Pearce with Lee Brice for “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” all of whom are seeing their first nod in the bracket.

Pearce, who could repeat her CMA Vocal Event win with Brice, also debuts as a Female Artist of the Year nominee. The Dollywood-groomed singer/songwriter joins the more-established Lambert, McBryde, Morris and Kelsea Ballerini in the category.

Like Pearce, HARDY picks up three nominations: New Male Artist of the Year, Songwriter of the Year and Music Event of the Year for “One Beer” with Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson. The Big Loud artist behind Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country,” Florida Georgia Line and Morgan Wallen’s “Up Down” and Chris Lane’s “I Don’t Know About You” is coming into his own.

You know things are changing when reigning Male Artist and Album of the Year winner Luke Combs’ nominations for Entertainer, Male Artist and Music Event with Eric Church, as well as Church’s Entertainer and Male Artist nominations, are merely part of the story. Ditto for the nominations for Bryan as Entertainer and Male Artist; Dierks Bentley’s Male Artist nod and Video of the Year nomination for “Gone”; and Keith Urban’s pair of Music Events, as part of Rhett’s “Be a Light” with Reba McEntire, Hillary Scott and Chris Tomlin and his own “One Too Many” with P!nk.

Pop stars P!nk, John Legend and Gwen Stefani received their first nominations. Legend shares a Video of the Year slot with Carrie Underwood for “Hallelujah”; Stefani teamed with Shelton on “Nobody but You.” Tom Petty & the HeartbreakersBenmont Tench picks up a Keyboard Player of the Year nomination for his work with Stapleton and Urban.

Among the other standouts, Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton, who turned in a tour de force performance of “What Are You Going to Tell Her” last year, are nominated for New Male Artist of the Year and Female Artist, while the late (and sorely missed) busbee was nominated for producing the Single and Music Event of the Year contender “I Hope You’re Happy Now.”

If not a new world order, an awful lot of artists broke through, categories shifted and singer/songwriters who make music on their own terms were recognized. At a time when women are still underrepresented, and amid calls for parity for PoC and a place at the table for openly LGBTQ artists, the strides made are noteworthy indeed.

Aside from the customary recognition of career momentum, artistic achievement and fan engagement, the 2021 ACM nominations seem to acknowledge not just emerging talent but artists who’ve made their mark from the margins.

This year’s telecast returns to last year’s locations honoring Nashville’s roots; The Bluebird Café, Ryman Auditorium and Grand Ole Opry House will host various performances, as well as the live presentation of awards.

The 56th Academy of Country Music Awards will be broadcast on CBS at 8 pm ET.

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