Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern isn’t just a suit running country music’s original trade organization. The Georgetown American history grad with an MBA from Vanderbilt certainly has the bona fides, but the former C-SPAN, TNN (The Nashville Network), Scripps-Howard's HGTV and Great American Country executive’s secret weapon is her genuine passion for country music.

With an eye to the future, she pauses to look at where the genre is right now. On the brink of what’s billed as “Country Music’s Biggest Night,” the CMA Awards on ABC remains Nashville’s premier awards show. Working with producer Robert Deaton, Trahern’s far-reaching view is one of the major reasons why.

It’s an interesting time in country music.

I’m happy to be the leader at this time, because of the place our business is in. A P-1 (radio station) still matters hugely; they brought us to the tent. They support us year ’round. They support our tours and our artists, and continue to do so. But then there’s streaming, social media, the move away from physical. It’s exciting.

I couldn’t agree more. Luke (Combs), Morgan (Wallen), Taylor (Swift) have all had great impact. Jelly Roll. Some come out as country, some come out as rock, but they all work. These artists are across all the charts—and streaming is a part of that. And I love the fact you have these new young acts—Bailey Zimmerman, Tyler Childers, Zach Bryan—breaking out in such big ways.

It’s pretty wide open.

In the long run, country music gets stronger as it gets broader. Coming into the format beyond the traditional gatekeepers, these artists who have different entry points, it only strengthens the music and the bond with different kinds of fans.

I sense not everyone loves this though.

I’m bullish on music discovery. Streaming, multi-artist playlists, even Music Fest. What makes one form of discovery more valid than another? New artists bringing new people to the genre? People loving music however they find it? That’s what matters. Some folks may not like it, because it’s not the same old country music sandbox. But 10 years ago, we were one primary rail of delivery—and we had some real issues. Now we have Megan Moroney and Hailey Whitters, both breaking through in big ways before radio kicked in.

I always say, ‘Good songs fit no matter what the format is.’ And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the Zach Bryan song with Kacey Musgraves; the places and outlets that are aggressively making that song part of the atmosphere.

Some people say this quick hit, quick burn sensation won’t last.

Patty Loveless, Tanya Tucker and Bob McDill all have songs that stand the test of time, and that’s why they went into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year. … Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe and Emmylou Harris are all in the Hall of Fame, and they didn’t get there through the conventional means, either.

Not everything people experience [this way] may stand the test of time. But they get a taste of our music and if they find something they like, they may come back and seek out more—and find something that endures.

Americana. Those artists draw on the deepest roots of what country came from. How does it fit?

I believe these acts firmly deserve to be here. Jason Isbell deserved his Album of the Year nomination for his Nashville Sound. Sometimes they aren’t actually members, they aren’t directly part of the process—but someone who is enters them. I love it when people who may not have a big label reach out, get on the ballots—and see what our members respond to. Tyler Childers has been on ballots before. He’s one of the most listened-to artists by our CMA staff.

And yet …

Many of these artists have been invited to participate over the years. Some choose not to for a variety of reasons. For some, it becomes part of their brand. We’ve tried to do more Americana programming—often at Ascend Amphitheater. Some have said it’s because it’s free. I don’t know. We can’t pay all the artists who are part of it. But I look at Lily Rose, Madelyn Edwards, who both have audiences. But when you see them at the stadium with a crowd of 60,000? That’s such a big deal. You can feel it. The War & Treaty have been one of those acts. They did the Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony for Dottie West a few years ago. They’ll be with us at The CMA Awards show. They’ve been at Fest, our event for Teachers of Excellence. People respond to the music. It’s not just about “the machine.”

This year’s awards …

We always want to be representative of the year that was. The nominations usually reflect that. Some years are more traditional. Other years, we have Beyoncé and The Chicks doing “Daddy Lessons,” or Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton. We love having a couple “a-ha!” moments, or the opportunity to give somebody their first TV appearance and really make it special.

This year, it’s Post Malone with HARDY and Morgan. But there will also be Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Jordan Davis, Jelly Roll, Megan Moroney, people who represent country music across the years. And who exactly is voting.

All of our nominees become lifetime members. Lil Nas X is a lifetime voting member. Our goal is to be inclusive, to have artists and professionals who make their living predominantly in country music vote. But we want artists and those professionals who may tangentially touch the music to partake of what we represent and the work we do.

There are definite criteria for voting membership. But we have as many independent voting members as do people at the labels, BMI, the agencies, management firms or big corporations. That’s why every vote matters.

Oliver Anthony may exist outside the circle you think of when you think of this industry. But he can certainly apply for membership. We would love to have him.

PHOTOS CREDITS: Jamie Schramm, Josh Brasted, Dustin Downing, Jamie Schramm, Hunter Berry

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