It’s like fantasy football, but for country music bloggers.
For just the second time in its history, the Country Music Association posted its “CMA Nominee Showcase,” featuring the results of the second round of voting in each of the 12 categories for this year’s CMA awards. The Showcase includes direct links that 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. When the CMA made these ballots public for the first time in 2016, it was in an attempt to increase transparency with their voting process 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 for the better part of the last decade. Whether or not that effort is successful is up for debate, since there have been multiple repeat winners since 2016, but it is still interesting to see how the voters have already narrowed the field of contenders in each category.
So, once again, 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 up to 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. If fewer than 5 nominees received multiple votes, then that category ended up with a smaller list on our ballot.
In a few weeks’ time, we’ll compare our ballot to the nominees that the actual CMA voting body came up with. Call it a hunch, but we’re not anticipating a whole lot of overlap based upon the trends in the nominees included on the second ballot.
Our picks for 2018!
Entertainer of the Year
I can basically copy-paste what we said about this category in 2016: “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.” We’d vote her in unanimously, which was also the case for Church, Lambert, and Stapleton. Brooks continues to struggle to find traction at radio as part of his un-retirement, but he remains one of the genre’s most captivating live performers… as long as you don’t ask Church’s opinion about lip syncing at an awards show, that is.
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, which was also the case in 2016.
Album of the Year
From A Room, Volume 2, Chris Stapleton
Girl Going Nowhere, Ashley McBryde
Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves
The Mountain, Dierks Bentley
Port St. Joe, Brothers Osborne
Look for each of these five albums to figure into our year-end lists for 2018: The only other album from the Showcase list to garner any support among our writers was the Tim McGraw – Faith Hill duet project. This was a fairly straightforward vote, with five good-to-great mainstream country albums listed alongside some uncommonly poor albums by the likes of Dan + Shay, Keith Urban, Kelsea Ballerini, and especially Chris Young.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: The past couple of years have seen the likes of Sturgill Simpson, Brandy Clark, and Jason Isbell land richly-deserved nominations from the CMA, but there weren’t any similar albums to rally that kind of support this year. Tami Neilson’s SASSAFRASS! was likely a bridge too far, while albums by Cody Jinks and Jason Eady missed the eligibility cutoff. American Aquarium’s Things Change and Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow are more surprising omissions, though.
Single of the Year
“Broken Halos,” Chris Stapleton
“Cry Pretty,” Carrie Underwood
“Drinkin’ Problem,” Midland
“Most People Are Good,” Luke Bryan
The Showcase list is a damning indictment of the dire state of country radio. These were the only four singles from the list that garnered any kind of consensus– and, of these, only “Broken Halos” was voted in unanimously– with scattered support for “Drowns the Whiskey” by Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert, Jon Pardi’s “Heartache on the Dancefloor,” and “When It Rains It Pours” by Luke Combs.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Some of the better but lower-charting singles from the past year failed to make the cut: Brothers Osborne’s “Shoot Me Straight,” Cam’s “Diane,” Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl,” and Ashley McBryde’s “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega.” Any of those would be preferable to “Singles You Up” by nearly infinite orders of magnitude.
Song of the Year
“Broken Halos,” Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton (Chris Stapleton)
“Drowns the Whiskey,” Brandon Kinney, Jeff Middleton, and Josh Thompson (Jason Aldean featuring Miranda Lambert)
“Drunk Girl,” Scooter Carusoe, Tom Douglas, and Chris Janson (Chris Janson)
“Most People Are Good,” David Frasier, Ed Hill, and Josh Kear (Luke Bryan)
Voting here was even more divided; just one of our writers voted for a full slate of five nominees. As with the Single Of The Year category, CMA voters appear to have conflated commercial success with quality, an especially dodgy proposition in such a dreadful year at radio. Bright side? “Female” was justifiably ignored here.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Miranda Lambert’s “Keeper of the Flame” failed to gain any traction at radio, but it would have been a worthy inclusion over “Body Like a Back Road,” which was held over as a nominee for a second awards’ cycle.
Best New Artist
We’re all-in on Ashley McBryde, and we’re at least 80% in on Chris Janson, Midland, and Carly Pearce. Lauren Alaina, Luke Combs, Lindsay Ell, and Walker Hayes all received a stray vote in this category, too, but none of them had more consistent support.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Of artists who have made serious bids for mainstream attention, there weren’t any obvious oversights on the Showcase list.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Lee Ann Womack
How in the world the completely tone-deaf Krystal Keith garnered enough votes to make the second-round ballot but Ashley Monroe didn’t is both a travesty and a mystery. Lambert is on the tail-end of her eligibility for The Weight Of These Wings, while Underwood’s next album has been preceded by one of her most unconventional singles to date. We voted for Musgraves, Price, and Womack on the strengths of their terrific albums that were released during the eligibility year. Cam, Reba McEntire, and Maren Morris all received a vote apiece.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Monroe is a a glaring oversight. Tami Neilson, Lindi Ortega, Brandi Carlile, Neko Case, and Jamie Lin Wilson would all be far more deserving of consideration than Keith.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Stapleton continues to ride high in our estimation, as does Church. They were both unanimous votes here, as was Dierks Bentley, who rebounded from the godawful Black with one of his strongest albums in The Mountain. Both Brooks and Pardi were able to garner sufficient support to make our final ballot over competition from likely nominees such as Jason Aldean and Thomas Rhett or marginally talented newcomers Kane Brown and Brett Young.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: None to speak of, though we would gladly replace the likes of Brett Young, who really and truly has a terrible singing voice, with, say, Jason Isbell or Aaron Watson.
Vocal Duo Or Group of the Year
Little Big Town
Maddie & Tae
We’ve been saying for years that both the CMAs and ACMs need to trim the fat from their Vocal Group and Vocal Duo categories by merging them. This year, our voting patterns worked out in such a way that it would lead to five nominees between the two sets of artists from the Showcase. It was refreshing to see that Sugarland actually released new material during the eligibility year and that their name wasn’t just rubber-stamped onto the ballot by CMA voters, while Brothers Osborne, Little Big Town, and Maddie & Tae were all unanimous choices by our crew.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: If 90s frat-rock also-rans Sister Hazel somehow made it onto the second ballot, there’s no reason at all why Turnpike Troubadours or American Aquarium shouldn’t have. Also, the Dixie Chicks are back in the recording studio, and we cannot wait to hear what they have in store.
Musician of the Year
Okay, here’s the deal with this category. Each and 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. But the problem is that it is always limited to guys who can really and truly play. Not once in the history of the CMA awards has a woman been nominated in either the Musician of the Year or Instrumentalist of the Year category. This year, 20 different men made the second ballot in this category. Even with the restrictive eligibility requirements– “a musician must have played on at least three albums or singles that have appeared in the Top 10 of the Country album or singles charts from Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart, Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, or Country Aircheck Chart, or be certified Gold by RIAA during the eligibility period”– they should have nominated Jenee Fleenor, who played fiddle on all of Jon Pardi’s singles.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Literally any woman. But the International Bluegrass Music Awards didn’t have any difficulty finding women to nominate for their awards last month: Kristin Scott Benson (banjo), Missy Raines (bass), Becky Buller (fiddle), Molly Tuttle (guitar), and Sierra Hull (mandolin) all made their final ballots.
Vocal Event of the Year
“Borrowed (Re-imagined),” LeAnn Rimes featuring Stevie Nicks
“Burning Man,” Dierks Bentley featuring Brothers Osborne
“Dear Hate,” Maren Morris featuring Vince Gill
“Drowns the Whiskey,” Jason Aldean featuring Miranda Lambert
“Straight to Hell,” Darius Rucker featuring Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Charles Kelley
Stevie Nicks or Bebe Rexha? That should not be a hard choice. At least, it wasn’t for us.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Since the Showcase list seems to suggest that re-recording a song in Spanish counts as an “event” now thanks to Midland, then Radney Foster’s lovely re-recording of “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” in Spanish should have been included.
Music Video of the Year
“Cry Pretty,” Carrie Underwood
“Drunk Girl,” Chris Janson
“Rich,” Maren Morris
Another copy-paste from 2016: “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.” These clips from Underwood, Janson, and Morris are all fine enough in their own ways, but the CMAs could put this entire category out to pasture– they haven’t presented the award on-air in ages, anyway– and it would be no great loss.
Notably missing from the Showcase list: Any of the videos that Kacey Musgraves released for the are-they-singles-or-not tracks from Golden Hour should have been short-listed.