CMA AWARDS 2023:
AIN’T NOTHING LIKE THE REAL THING

And we’re off! Nominations are out, and the post facto chatter has started.

Boy has it started! Phone calls and texts from people I rarely hear from.

So, let’s break this down.

There are two truths about today’s Nashville. In a world of always evolving distribution, it’s never been faster or easier to ignite music that connects. AND this year’s ballot speaks to something even more compelling—both fans and the industry want real voices, capturing actual life experiences.

Sure, you can get a bunch of hit songwriters, write a song to a track, put it out and go up the charts or maximize playlists. It’s not unlike the ’90s “artist development” publishing deals, where young acts with potential were signed and set up on writing appointments with the publisher’s writers. Trouble is, that pool gets thin and many of today’s young artists watched TV talent shows and worked social media instead of having a full life.

Lainey Wilson, Jelly Roll, Kelsea Ballerini, Jordan Davis, Ashley McBryde, Carly Pearce, Cody Johnson, Zach Bryan, Luke Combs, even Morgan Wallen and HARDY, have worked outside the lines. They’ve struggled in a 10-year town—with the exception of Wallen who’s had his own journey—and accrued a sense of how hard it can be—the fighting for it, the desperately needing to be heard and not wanting to surrender their voice in the name of just having a hit.

Maybe turbo-nominee and award winner Chris Stapleton blazed this trail when he walked away from a major label deal, dove into The SteelDrivers and didn’t look back. His return to Universal, where Cindy Mabe made it her mission to break him, was on his terms—and his lightning rod moment with Justin Timberlake on a CMA Awards telecast where he dominated, sending his Traveller through the roof. Like Willie Nelson, whom Stapleton often tours with, before him, real music—once heard—blew the doors off. Real talent, songs that follow the heart not the formula and a willingness to dive deep in the studio to find sounds that resonate as part of the record. Nashville has seen this correction time after time: Dwight Yoakam, The Judds, Randy Travis, John Anderson and the mid-’80s new traditionalism; the ’90s classic country of Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Mary Chapin Carpenter and arena rock-grounded Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn; and even the aughts with raised-on-old-guard Music Row writers Tim McGraw, John Michael Montgomery, and Kenny Chesney.

Somewhere between the hip-hop loving rural kids wanting to make their own hybrid and Bro-country seeming an unstoppable force, rock radio guys shifted to country—and people stopped thinking about great songs. It wasn’t about life, but flashcards of bon fires, hot nights, cold beer, Daisy Dukes, sweet honeys, long nights, truck beds, four wheels, whiskey-tequila-bourbon brand names.

When it’s like building a Lego house, with interchangeable pieces and a lot of willing, good looking kids who work their socials, the living is frisky. But at a point, the exhaustion sets in. Girls like Lainey in her big bell bottoms and Bolero wide brim don’t look like the hot girls who are often signed and fail to launch. Guys like Jelly Roll—or HARDY, or Wallen, whose mullet was the topic of many discussions—look more foreboding than the post-frat guys getting deals.

So, what happened? Real life and songs pulled from it just rose to the top.

Like the year Alison Krauss swept everything with her Keith Whitley tribute track “When You Say Nothing At All,” artfully worked at radio by Joe Galante and his killer RCA Nashville team, and nobody saw it coming, this year’s nominations tells me: People in Nashville recognize the difference, and maybe it’s time to tack back to the songs that truly hit people where they live, not just escapist.

Heart over hedonism, hope instead of numbing out. What a concept! But then country music has always been a refuge in hard times—and man, the times sure have been strange.


PHOTO CREDITS:
Jelly Roll, Lainey Wilson: Rich Polk
Chris Stapleton: Kevin Winter

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