It’s like fantasy football, but for country music bloggers.
Earlier this week, the Country Music Association posted its “CMA Nominee Showcase,” which featured the results of the second round of voting in each of the 12 categories for this year’s CMA awards. The Showcase included direct links that would allow eligible voters to hear music from each of the nominated albums, singles, and songs, and view “For Your Consideration” type ads for each of the artists nominated in every category.
This second ballot is an important one, because it reflects the top vote-earners in each category from which CMA members will then narrow their lists to the final 5 nominees, which will be announced in a few weeks. 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the CMA awards, and this is the first time in the organization’s history that they’ve given a glimpse behind-the-curtain during the voting process, in an attempt to increase transparency and to cut down on the “block voting” that has allowed one particular artist management / PR group to take a stranglehold over the award winners in the past few years. Whether or not that effort is successful remains to be seen, but it was interesting to see how the voters had already narrowed the field of contenders in each category.
(Sidebar: We’d planned to link directly to the Showcase page, but it’s already been removed as voting ended on Wednesday, 8/24.)
So we figured that we would go through each category and come up with our “perfect” ballot, were we the ones running the show at the CMAs. Each participating writer voted for 5 nominees in each category based upon the fields posted in the Showcase– no write-in candidates were allowed!– and we tallied the votes to see who our CMA nominees would be this year.
In a few weeks’ time, we’ll be able to see if our ballot has any predictive value, in which case it would be time to go buy some Powerball tickets, or, perhaps more likely, if we can be smug about having superior taste to the actual CMA voters.
Our picks, then:
Entertainer of the Year
We’ve been crowing for years about Underwood’s lack of nominations in this category, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we included her here. Stapleton’s profile has simply exploded since last year’s CMA broadcast, and he’s emerged as one of the genre’s current standard-bearers alongside Church and Bentley. Brooks’ tour continues to prove that he’s one of country’s best-ever showmen, though he hasn’t found much traction at radio since mounting his comeback.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: No one to speak of, though it’s notable that Underwood and Miranda Lambert were the only solo women to make the top 20.
Album of the Year
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson
Big Day in a Small Town, Brandy Clark
Hero, Maren Morris
Mr. Misunderstood, Eric Church
Storyteller, Carrie Underwood
The inclusion of Simpson’s divisive masterpiece– genre purists feel betrayed that an artist with Simpson’s trad-country bona fides would dare include prog-rock and Southern soul influences on one of his albums– was a pleasant surprise that brings to mind Stapelton’s breakthrough a year ago. His album, along with the strong set by Church, landed on all of our individual ballots.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Cam’s Untamed, Maddie & Tae’s Start Here, Joey+Rory’s Hymns That Are Important to Us, Kip Moore’s Wild Ones, and Dave Cobb’s Southern Family compilation. None of those strong mainstream or mainstream-adjacent efforts made the cut, though poor albums by Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, and Cole Swindell all did.
Single of the Year
“Church Bells,” Carrie Underwood
“Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw
“My Church,” Maren Morris
“Nobody to Blame,” Chris Stapleton
“Record Year,” Eric Church
The Showcase list for this category was, frankly, kind of a wasteland. In addition to the five singles listed here, only three others received any votes from us. We’re not “Gonna Wanna Tonight,” and “You Should Be Here” shouldn’t, but CMA voters may disagree.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Some of the better but lower-charting singles from the past year– Maddie & Tae’s charming “Shut Up & Fish,” Drake White’s ingratiating “It Feels Good,” Jennifer Nettles’ “Unlove You,” Reba’s “Just Like Them Horses”– didn’t make the long-list, though none of those are necessarily surprising omissions.
Song of the Year
“Burning House,” Jeff Bhasker, Cam, Tyler Johnson (Cam)
“Humble and Kind,” Lori McKenna (Tim McGraw)
“My Church,” busbee, Maren Morris (Maren Morris)
“Nobody to Blame,” Barry Bales, Ronnie Bowman, Chris Stapleton (Chris Stapleton)
“Record Year,” Eric Church, Jeff Hyde (Eric Church)
Voting here was even more uniform than in the Single of the Year category, as four of these five songs appeared on each of our ballots and only two other songs were tagged. We’re willing to bet that even Dierks Bentley himself would say that “Somewhere On A Beach” isn’t a song that should be rewarded for its songwriting, but that song was among the final 20 the CMA voters included. Cam replaces Underwood on our list here– “Church Bells” didn’t make the CMA’s final list, but her “Heartbeat” did.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: As with the Single of the Year category, the long-list here favored radio hits– plus Charles Kelley’s “The Driver.” “Just Like Them Horses” would have been especially worthy of recognition here.
Best New Artist
It should come as no great surprise that our votes in this category would skew in favor of the genre’s up-and-coming women rather than rallying behind Chase Rice or Chris Lane. It’s encouraging that radio seems to have gotten on board with 90s throwback Pardi, and I’ll admit that I personally didn’t vote for Simpson only on the technicality that his winning here would be only slightly less egregious than Shelby Lynne’s Grammy win for Best New Artist. Brothers Osborne, Eric Paslay, and Old Dominion all received some votes from us here, as well.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Drake White was a fairly glaring oversight, though perhaps his team will push harder come ACM time in the Spring. Margo Price made the final cut-off for Female Vocalist of the Year, but she wasn’t listed in this category. Among other non-mainstream acts, Aubrie Sellers would also have been deserving of attention here.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Look. We all know who is likely winning this award on November 2nd. And I’ve championed Miranda Lambert as loudly as anyone, but the only music she released at all during the eligibility period was one track from the Southern Family compilation. By all rights, she should be sitting this one out, and we voted accordingly. And it’s encouraging that there are so many other women who are viable contenders for this award this year. Of those we voted for, only Underwood is a surefire nominee in a few weeks, but Cam, Clark, and Morris are all certainly in the mix, too. Look for them to compete with perpetual bridesmaid Kacey Musgraves, ACM nominee Jana Kramer, and perhaps a veteran like Jennifer Nettles, Martina McBride, Lee Ann Womack, or Trisha Yearwood for the two up-for-grabs nominations alongside Underwood, Lambert, and Kelsea Ballerini.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: There weren’t any glaring omissions, though it would have been cool to see Morgane Stapleton, Rhiannon Giddens, Tami Neilson, Jamie Lin Wilson, or Dori Freeman sneak onto the list.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Stapleton’s shadow has only grown longer since he brought the house down alongside his wife, Morgane Stapleton, and Justin Timberlake at last year’s show. This year, he could be joined in this category by another critics’ and artists’ favorite in Simpson, and we’d happily endorse that. Our votes here were spread evenly between those two men, Bentley, Church, and McGraw. None of us are particularly keen on Bentley’s latest album, but we were even less keen on some of the other men who made the Showcase list, so he was able to sneak in here.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: None to speak of, though we would gladly replace the likes of Chase Rice with, say, Jason Isbell or Aaron Watson.
Vocal Duo of the Year
Dailey & Vincent
Maddie & Tae
Just because the CMA voters are going to nominate and likely give this award to Florida Georgia Line, that doesn’t mean that we had to. In fact, not one of us voted for them. And when Dailey & Vincent are on the ballot, why would we? The Bluegrass duo, along with Joey+Rory and Maddie & Tae, were voted onto our ideal ballot unanimously.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: No one to speak of, but it was still baffling to see that Brooks & Dunn were somehow included at a time when Ronnie Dunn’s newest single is billed as “Ronnie Dunn featuring Kix Brooks.” Bright side: Sugarland wasn’t still on the list.
Vocal Group of the Year
The Cadillac 3
Eli Young Band
Little Big Town
Randy Rogers Band
Zac Brown Band
The pickings? They are slim. Seriously, a couple of us voted for The Last Bandoleros based upon one terrific single that charted for all of six weeks before radio dumped it for sounding too much like The Mavericks.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Speaking of The Mavericks, they did release music during the eligibility period. The Dixie Chicks, based upon the success of their comeback tour alone, would have made just as much sense to include here as Lady Antebellum, who are on hiatus. Hillary Scott & The Scott Family and Wynonna & The Big Noise both could have been included in this category, as well. And, as Daniel pointed out in the comments, Turnpike Troubadours would have been an easy vote had they made the long-list.
Musician of the Year
Every year, it’s this category that is the most stacked from top-to-bottom with undeniable talent. These guys can really and truly play. And Jerry Douglas’ audience reaction shots to Chris Stapleton’s performance were one of the highlights of last year’s broadcast.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Literally any woman. Every musician on the Showcase list was male.
Vocal Event of the Year
“The Cost of Living,” Don Henley featuring Merle Haggard
“The Driver,” Charles Kelley featuring Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay
“Lay Me Down,” Loretta Lynn featuring Willie Nelson
“Mixed Drinks About Feelings,” Eric Church featuring Susan Tedeschi
“You Are My Sunshine,” Morgane Stapleton featuring Chris Stapleton
I mean, that’s a pretty cool line-up, right? Not a pop star in sight here, but it seems likely that some combination of Demi Lovato, Pink, Elle King, and Gwen Stefani will turn up in the actual nominees in a few weeks based upon their high-profile collaborations. For the record, Morgane Stapleton can sing every one of them under the table, and we’re still anxiously awaiting a solo album from her.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Since full albums have turned up in this category in the past few years, the Southern Family compilation produced by Dave Cobb was a surprising omission. Any of the individual tracks or the complete albums by Hillary Scott & The Scott Family or Wynonna, whose duet partners included Tedeschi and Jason Isbell, would have been deserving of inclusion in this category, too.
Music Video of the Year
“Break Up With Him,” Old Dominion
“Burning House,” Cam
“Fire Away,” Chris Stapleton
“Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw
“Record Year,” Eric Church
Long gone are the days when a distinctive video– remember Kathy Mattea’s clip for “455 Rocket” or Junior Brown’s “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead”– wins this category for recognition of how music videos can stand on their own as worthy of consideration. This is one area where country music truly falls well behind other genres, which have embraced music videos as a creative medium. Stapleton and Cam both offered strong videos this year, so perhaps that trend will reverse.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Cam’s “Mayday,” which may have been an even better video than the one for “Burning House,” Jon Pardi’s “Head Over Boots” and its nudie suits, and Drake White’s first-person-slash-first-dog-POV video for “Livin’ the Dream.”