If We Ran The CMA Awards…

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:

Carrie UnderwoodEntertainer of the Year
Dierks Bentley
Garth Brooks
Eric Church
Chris Stapleton
Carrie Underwood

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.

A Sailor's Guide to EarthAlbum 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.

Eric Church Record YearSingle 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.

Tim McGraw Humble and KindSong 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.

Maren MorrisBest New Artist
Cam
Brandy Clark
Maren Morris
Jon Pardi
Sturgill Simpson

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.

Brandy ClarkFemale Vocalist of the Year
Cam
Brandy Clark
Ashley Monroe
Maren Morris
Carrie Underwood

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.

Chris Stapleton Fire AwayMale Vocalist of the Year
Dierks Bentley
Eric Church
Tim McGraw
Sturgill Simpson
Chris Stapleton

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.

joey_roryVocal Duo of the Year
Brothers Osborne
Dailey & Vincent
Joey+Rory
Maddie & Tae
Thompson Square

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.

Little Big Town Shut Up TrainVocal 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.

Paul FranklinMusician of the Year
Jerry Douglas
Paul Franklin
Kenny Greenberg
Mike Johnson
Brent Mason

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.

 

Don Henley Cass CountyVocal 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.”

 

27 Comments

  1. Turnpike Troubadours should be running away with Vocal Group of the Year if only people would pay attention. I like your predictions though.

  2. @ Daniel

    I’m editing the post to include them, and I’m kicking myself for not remembering to include them in the first place, since we included them on our year-end lists last year and I posted their new video in the Sunday Selections a few weeks back. Good catch!

  3. I saw people talking on Reddit about how great that Cole Swindell song was, and all I could think was, “Obviously none of these people have heard George Strait’s ‘Everything I See.'”

  4. Since no female musician was nominated, I’ll mention Sarah Zimmermann of the duo Striking Matches for her guitar and mandolin playing.

  5. As you mentioned, Lambert had no music released in the eligibility year except for a song on a compilation album. In terms of Entertainer of the Year, how much touring did she do in the eligibility year?

    It seems to me there should be some sort of screening process that eliminates artists who shouldn’t actually be eligible. I feel like there were years where Sugarland didn’t release anything yet got in Duo.

  6. I have a truly terrible feeling that Lambert might actually wind up in the final five for Entertainer of the Year, despite having a portion of a very meekly-selling tour and, literally, one song released during the entire eligibility period.

  7. Brandy – To what are you specifically referring? I’d also love to hear your argument FOR whatever you think we are opposing.

  8. Seems you all are trying to say the CMA’s are fixed lol,Well let me tell you this, So is Country Radio, They play whoever they want to regardless of the request that people vote , Thats why Carrie gets so many #1’s I like Carrie alot but Miranda will forever be my favorite and she hasn’t won any Award she didn’t deserve IMO

  9. 1st I would like to say I am sorry and I guess I read this article wrong. As for the sour grapes comment I think I was wrong but as for my other comment I stand by it except for maybe saying you think the CMA’s are fixed. Some of your selections I agree with and some I don’t as you would with mine. Can I make a suggestion ? Fix your comments where if people change their minds they can delete them.

  10. Regarding your “perfect” ballots, I’ll be rooting for:

    album – big day in a small town
    single – humble and kind
    song – humble and kind or burning house
    new artist – cam or brandy
    female vocalist – brandy or cam
    vocal event – don henley’s Cost of Living w merle haggard

  11. Brandy,
    We do not allow readers to edit their comments for continuity reasons (so that following comments will make sense). For example, Jess’s response to you would not have made sense if you had been able to edit the comment that he had responded to.We also don’t allow comments to be edited or deleted so that a commenter can’t deny that they’ve made a comment after they’ve deleted it. Commenters need to be accountable for what they’ve written. However, an apology or correction, as you’ve done, is always an effective option.

  12. Brandy – I don’t think anyone has denied country radio has its issues/politics. In fact most everyone here knows that is true. The same is true of the CMAs. Carrie Underwood, among others, has been helped by those politics, sure. But I think her album sales and singles downloads at least show people really do like her music. There are plenty of radio #1s without strong sales or streams to back up the success. There is also clear evidence that certain management and labels have a stronghold on the country industry awards. How else do you explain Carrie Underwood – with her sales, her airplay, her touring numbers, and her general role as an ambassador of country music through Grand Ole Opry appearances but also thinks like the NFL theme, doing the Sound of Music, performing on the Grammys/Emmys/etc – not ever once getting an Entertainer of the Year nomination from the CMAs?

  13. Thank you for this great post. It is one of the most inviting I have read in a long time; and this blog is one of the most inviting to read, too. I offer my thoughts here, with apologies for their length:

    Entertainer of the Year: Carrie Underwood. From a sheer performance level, she can blow away competition almost like no other, and Storyteller I find is a compelling album, from start to finish. Given the CMAs past negligence with reference to her, this year should be her year for this award. Runner-up: Chris Stapelton. (I almost regret writing that as how could someone with his talent be a “runner-up”?) In the real world, I think Eric Church will get the award this year and he also is a deserving recipient.

    Album of the Year: I say, Storyteller. I admit though, Sturgill Simpson has done some remarkable recordings. I am not sure he cracks the ceiling like Chris Stapelton did, but Simpson’s talent must be reckoned with. For the names that did not make your cut, Maddie & Tae’s album makes my cut. I hope they continue to make music of their first album’s caliber. If so, they and country music have a great future. Some of the singles on their album continue to stun me for their excellence, no matter how many times I listen. Cam’s Untamed deserves to be on the list, too.

    Single of the Year: I go with Tim McGraw’s Humble & Kind. Honestly, Lori McKenna does a killer rendition, as well. As she should since she wrote it. (And as a Massachusetts citizen, I am biased to her since she lives here.) Eric Church’s Record Year would be a satisfying win though, also. In my ideal world, I will add Reba’s Like Them Horses as it is one of the most beautiful songs out there. It’s dangerous to say that a current song will stand the test of time and be regarded as one of the best country songs ever. Yet, I will go out on a limb and argue that it will be on that list. As an ode to her deceased father, anyone who has not listened to it should. The music video that accompanies it is hauntingly beautiful. Is it just me or is Reba making the best music now of her career?

    Song of the Year: Humble & Kind, written by Lori McKenna.

    Best New Artist: Cam. Now, my colleague and friend, Emily, put me on to Cam last year. I then went to see her at a late afternoon concert in Boston Common last summer before she really took off. In a way, I saw Cam before she became CAM. She performed most of the singles on her album. She is a talent to be reckoned with. There are some fascinating options here. Margot Price for example. Wow. Her stuff is outstanding. And you mentioned Aubrey Sellars. An interesting choice. When I first heard her, she was a backup singer for David Nail for what I regard as his best single (and Boston-inspired), Brand New Day. I thought it was Lee Ann Womack. Turned out, she is Lee Ann’s daughter. She looks and sounds like Lee Ann – pardon my respectfully put comment, but lucky woman for both those reasons – yet with an updated personal music style. Drake White and Mo Pitney should make this list in future years. And I want to see Sam Outlaw make it, too. He’s worth some serious attention.

    Best Duo: This category takes hits, but honestly, I always enjoy it greatly. Admittedly, the choices can be tough like with Florida Georgia Line. I choose Thompson Square though based on their great new single, You Make It Look So Good, even if it is not getting sufficient airplay. I always love the Eli Young Band, too, even with some poor single selections recently. And let me say this – maybe it’s only Ronnie Dunn featuring Kix Brooks rather than Brooks & Dunn. Yet, hey, it’s got them both on a recording so the planet is infinitely better off again. Really. Also, maybe Don Henley should be on here since his album is a collection of some of the best duets out there, especially his duets with Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood and Dolly Parton. I love the Bramble Rose one he does, too, with Miranda Lambert although it could do without Mick Jagger, who rather plays a third wheel on it. Joey and Rory did some tremendous music in recent years, too. It certainly would be deserving and appropriate this year if they took the award. Lastly, Bob mentioned Striking Matches. Like many good artists, I have been amazed that they have not received more attention. I hope for good things for them in the near future.

    Male of the Year: Chris Stapelton or Eric Church. I am happy if either receives the award. Both would be deserving of it. I like Dirks Bentley, too, yet I admit I have not taken well to his new single. In my ideal world, the winner would be David Nail. He is nearly peerless as an artist. The Fighter album has some serious work, such as the single that features Lori McKenna and the album’s finale discussing his father. While David is appreciated as an artist’s artist, he is never appreciated enough by my take.

    Female of the Year: Now, let’s get to serious business. Because this is serious business. This is my favorite of the awards because this usually is where the best country music is. Of the women on your list, the winner should be Ashley Monroe hands down as she is making some of the best country music ever. Her album, The Blade, is extraordinary. Aside from the title song, there is On to Something Good. Weight of the Load. Dixie. One may as well just copy paste the album’s whole playlist. Couple her beautiful, fragile voice with amazing lyrics and how could Ashley lose? (Maybe I should not ask that question.) Admittedly, Carrie Underwood would be deserving of this as well and I would be happy for it. And to fess up and come clean, Martina will always be my choice here. Always. How could she not be? There’s a whole other comment to post on that.

    Thanks for letting me go off here. I’ve had fun. But I live in Boston. We do have country fans here, but they’ve got to come out of the closet!

  14. Brian – I love Monroe’s work, too, but if you read the criteria for Female Vocalist (and other awards) they are about more than quality music. By definition things like airplay, the expansion of country music, etc are supposed to be considered. To that end, as much as a win for someone like Monroe would be cool, it would actually be outside the lines of what is set forth for voters.

  15. Jason,
    You’re technically right, but Chris Stapleton winning huge CMA awards kind of gives us all hope that airplay doesn’t have to be a big factor over quality music.

  16. Jason, I appreciate your comments, yet to concur with Leeann, we can only hope! Thanks.
    PS: I just discovered last night a duo called Mandolin Orange. I was impressed. Anyone know them or have thoughts regarding them? I realize this query is outside of this thread’s subject.

  17. I didn’t realize nominations were announced today.

    Carrie Underwood is in Entertainer, Female Vocalist, Album, and Musical Event.

    “Record Year,” “My Church,” “Humble and Kind,” and “Die A Happy Man” are all in both Single and Song. “Burning House” is the fifth in Song, while “Nobody To Blame” is in Single.

  18. From what I read for the CMA nominations, I predict that Maren Morris will be the Chris Stapleton of the 2016 ceremony. Yet, Chris also can still post significant wins. I’ll have to study the lists carefully. I think though that Humble & Kind wins something this year.

  19. I am a little disappointed to see Maren Morris as the new country “it” girl when she’s 1) not country and 2) there are so many other women who get swept under the rug releasing some of the best country music lately period.

    I wish Maren success, but it says a lot about the state of the genre that the most successful new female artist is one that’s not actually making country music. I totally understand that music evolves (and I’m a young person myself, so I don’t have anywhere near the depth of knowledge of country history that others on this site have), but I love country music and would love to have popular country artists sound even a tiny bit country.

    I’ve listened to My Church dozens of times and think it’s really catchy, but Hero isn’t a country album in any way. Maren is not a country artist any more than the “bro country” artists are country. She’s a better artist in general, but that doesn’t make her country. A good pop song is a good pop song.

  20. @Brian Lacey – almost forgot. I was happy to see someone else mention Striking Matches on this site. I see you are also a fan of Ashley Monroe. Two songs on the Blade were co-written by Sarah & Justin w Ashley, “Dixie” and “From Time to Time”. I’m also a David Nail fan.

    I checked out the Mandolin Orange website. I was impressed by their Forward Together news. I’ll have to check out their music.

  21. Bob:

    Thanks! You have excellent taste in music! I had missed the fact that the Striking Matches team co-wrote those two songs with Ashley but I am pleased to know it now. I have seen them perform (alas, only on YouTube) with Ashley and they are great together. My friend and colleague in my office, Emily, has seen Striking Matches In the Circle at the Opry. She reported very favorably on seeing them in person. Mandolin Orange has concerts this autumn in Boston where I live and in Philadelphia where I have family so I hope to see them. I have been enjoying their music. If you have Amazon Prime, their current album is there to enjoy. Their next album comes out at the end of September.

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