The CMA Awards should be the evening every year where country music is shown in the best possible light. However, it’s been many years now since the CMA fully took advantage of the opportunities that prime-time slot presents. Here are ten ways the show can get back on track, and maybe even be better than ever.
1. Expand the Ballot
Limiting the second ballot to only twenty entries per category was a disaster, resulting in some truly lackluster nominees. Take a page from the Grammy playbook and put all eligible submissions on the second ballot, regardless of vote total. Have the CMA voters choose five entries from a wider swath of nominees, and create a more level playing field for all of the labels, major and indie.
2. Limit the Number of Entries per Artist
The CMA can go one step further and improve the Grammy model by eliminating the first ballot entirely, and allowing each artist to submit only one entry, of their choice, for consideration. This will help avoid embarrassments like we saw this year, where Alan Jackson was represented in the Song of the Year category by “Good Time” instead of “Small Town Southern Man.”
3. Tighten up the Categories
Take the long-clamored for step of combining Vocal Duo & Vocal Group into one category. Limit to one the nominations an artist can get in the “New Artist/Horizon” category. Amend the antiquated Song of the Year loophole that allows a song to be nominated two years in a row.
4. Add Live Performance and Songwriter, Artist-Songwriter Categories
Eliminate the confusion caused by the Entertainer category, which has unfortunately morphed into a “biggest tour” award in the post-Garth era, by adding a Live Performance category. This will help focus voter attention on all dimensions of the Entertainer category. Create two new categories for songwriters - Songwriter of the Year and Artist-Songwriter of the Year. With artists and musicians already being honored individually, equivalent recognition for writers is long overdue. Create the separate categories to ensure that high-profile writers like Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley or Taylor Swift don’t overwhelm non-artist songwriters in the same category.
5. Move the Show Back to the Opry House
The scale of an arena is a total mismatch for a televised award show. The CMA Awards always sounded great in the Opry house, and it connects the show back with its own history and that of country music. If the show must be kept downtown, move it to the Ryman.
6. Televise all Categories
Return to the old format of “performance, award, performance”, which allowed each category to be announced on-air. This is not the Grammys, where there are more than a hundred categories. If the Oscars can televise costume and sound awards, the CMA can find time for Musician, Musical Event and Music Video.
7. Trim the Guest List
Limit performance slots to current nominees and presenter slots to current nominees and former winners. Country music’s community is tremendously rich with talent. The washed-up rock stars need that CMA slot more than the CMA needs them.
8. Define the Role of the Host(s)
The CMA’s choice of Brad Paisley & Carrie Underwood made sense on paper. During the actual show, Underwood was the one who best captured the tone that once defined the CMAs. Her approach should be the standard. One could easily imagine her hosting for the next decade, but other artists should be given a shot, either as her partner or on their own. Two very good possibilities: Keith Urban and Shania Twain.
9. Televise the Hall of Fame Inductees
What makes country music special is its respect for its long and deep history. The CMA Awards haven’t been the same since the Hall of Fame inductees were marginalized. If you’ve given your life to country music and made it all the richer for it, you deserve to be recognized for it. Cindy Walker’s induction is proof that the best moments of the show’s history can come during the Hall of Fame segment. It’s a travesty that Ralph Emery, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Tom T. Hall, The Statler Brothers and Mel Tillis were denied the tributes that they deserved.
10. In Memoriam
Brad Paisley’s been a part of two powerful award show moments this year that paid tribute to recently deceased country legends – Eddy Arnold at the ACM’s, and Jerry Reed at the CMAs. The CMA should follow the lead of the Emmys, Grammys and Oscars by adding an In Memoriam reel, allowing the singers, songwriters, musicians, producers and industry figures who have passed on to be acknowledged with reverence and respect.