In a perfect world, country music would be a place where radio is open to all kinds. But the Country Music Association Awards is a place where artistic excellence is often recognized beyond mere commercial impact. Witness then-Rounder recording artist Alison Krauss’ four-award sweep in 1995, including Female Vocalist and Single of the Year for “When You Say Nothing at All,” or Chris Stapleton’s dark-horse Album, Male Vocalist and New Artist wins in 2015. When voting, Music City will recognize greatness.

This year, Eric Church and Stapleton take five nominations. Newcomer and global “I Hope” sensation Gabby Barrett scores four, alongside producer Jay Joyce and engineer Jason Hall.

Still, at a time when women still struggle for parity on radio, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert take two of the five Entertainer of the Year slots. The category is often heavily weighted to touring, and while both women are true headliners, each delivered a creative project: Underwood a true gospel/inspiration album, Lambert the unplugged-feeling Marfa Sessions with songwriter/artists Jack Ingram and Jon Randall as well as the Elle King Musical Event-nominated rave-fest “Drunk (And I Don’t Want to Go Home).”

Pushing the “artistic” boundaries also defines fellow Entertainer of the Year nominees Eric Church, Luke Combs and Chris Stapleton. All three are up for Male Vocalist of the Year; Church’s Heart and Stapleton’s Starting Over also take Album of the Year nods, while Combs picks up a Song of the Year nomination for “Forever After All.”

Intriguingly, these three men have won all of the above awards. Church and Stapleton have also landed both Song and Single nominations for “Helluva View” and “Starting Over,” respectively.

The Song/Single double play also applies to a pair of Warner Nashville singer/songwriters, as Ashley McBryde scores for the taut infidelity classic “One Night Standards,” while Gabby Barrett earns her nods for “The Good Ones.” Both are vying for Female Vocalist of the Year, with Barrett also earning a New Artist of the Year berth.

Female Vocalist 2021 suggests a shift. Barrett, McBryde and Lambert are joined by Maren Morris, who receives additional nominations for Musical Event and Video for her duet with husband Ryan Hurd on “Chasing You,” and Carly Pearce, who earns her first Album of the Year nomination for 29.

Album of the Year, like Entertainer, represents a deeper dig into the music. Pearce’s nod alongside Church’s Heart, Brothers Osborne’s Skeletons and Stapleton’s Starting Over is a surprise, and so is the presence of Morgan Wallen’s massively streaming/selling Dangerous: The Double Album. This is his first nomination for the wildly popular set.

Does this mean the country music community is ready to forgive if not forget? Is this about not slighting all the co-writers, producers and musicians who created what may be the biggest record of 2021? Or was Wallen nominated to avoid charges of “cancel culture”? Or is it simply that it’s one of the best records of the year? (Because it is.) That’s hard to say, given the genre’s response to much of the world’s social upheaval. Echoing a more evolved (positive?) note, we also see New Artist boasting its most diverse lineup ever, as Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen, Barrett and songwriter and 2021 Grammy darling Ingrid Andress are joined by Wallen’s labelmate/co-writer, HARDY.

Also leaning to the more progressive side of what Music City could/should be: triple nods for contemporary traditionalist Chris Young and genre-blurring superstar Kane Brown on their “Famous Friends.” Not only did they pick up the expected Vocal Event, but they also scored Single and Video nominations.

Beyond so many newer names and faces, there are a few “classics.” Dierks Bentley, who likes to joke about “being the nominee guy,” is a contender for both Male and Video with “Gone.” Veterans Luke Bryan and Kenny Chesney are nominated only for Musical Event, Bryan with Jordan Davis on “Buy Dirt” and Chesney with Kelsea Ballerini on “half of my hometown,” which also earned a Video nod.

Duo and Group were filled with single—and perennial—nominees. Brothers Osborne are the lone exception; their three noms also include a Video slot for “Younger Me,” an homage to TJ’s “coming forward” about his sexuality.

Suggesting a true changing of the guard, Alan Jackson (whose Where Have You Gone is a definitive work of classic country), Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Keith Urban and George Strait are completely missing this year. Also, the fact that emerging stars Ballerini, Dan + Shay and Midland are all absent from major creative categories suggests how competitive the CMA Awards are once again becoming.

Are new narratives emerging from Nashville? Has the songwriting/business-focused community taken the upheaval in the world seriously? Perhaps the business is also turning over, breaking some of the entrenched nominees’ holds on certain categories. Given how conservative many beyond the genre believe country music is, this slate of nominees represents an opportunity to consider what Nashville is going to be in the coming years. Given that the city has always had strong progressive currents—consider Willie Nelson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and k.d. lang—it’s encouraging to see what could be a deeper awareness in this year’s potential CMA Award winners.

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