If We Ran the CMA Awards… (2020 Edition)

We like what we like... But do we like what the CMA likes?

On July 30th, 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 to view “For Your Consideration” type ads for each of the artists nominated in every category. The website also reminds the voters of the eligibility criteria for every category, not that those criteria ever seem to matter much when it comes to the CMAs (or especially to the ACMs, which are still slated to be handed out in a few weeks).

In terms of those pesky rules that are always butting heads with logic, perhaps the biggest story surrounding this year’s nominations is centered around Garth Brooks. In a maneuver that was completely on-brand, in the sense that it was probably well-intentioned but was also a self-aggrandizing spectacle, Brooks held an honest-to-God press conference to announce that he was withdrawing from consideration for the Entertainer of the Year award in response to the backlash from his 2019 victory, his record-extending seventh in that category… Except the CMAs responded by noting that no artist or PR team may withdraw themselves from consideration, so it will be entirely within the hands of the voting members of the CMAs to decide whether or not they want to respect Brooks’ wishes and recognize other artists who have been overlooked.

So Brooks’ name is still among the 15 semi-finalists on the second ballot for Entertainer of the Year. 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’ time.

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, as much as we were tempted to nominate Tami Neilson in most categories– 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 the event of ties for a 4th or 5th nominee in the category, the total number of nominees was expanded.

Soon, we’ll be able to look back to compare our ballot to the nominees that the actual CMA voting body came up with. Per usual, we’re not anticipating a whole lot of overlap.

Our picks for 2020!


Entertainer of the Year

Dierks Bentley
Eric Church
Luke Combs
Miranda Lambert
Carrie Underwood

I’m just going to copy-paste what we said about this category in 2016, 2018, and 2019: “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.” She was a the only unanimous choice for our crew this year; the other four nominees all landed on four out of five ballots. Bentley and Church made our cut once again this year, while Lambert makes a return appearance and Combs, arguably the biggest star in the genre right now, breaks in for the first time.

Notably missing from the Showcase list: Per usual, only two women made the short-list of 15 candidates. This year, the exclusion of Maren Morris, given her overall commercial profile and partnership with The Highwomen project, seems awfully hard to justify when voters inexplicably made room for Lee Brice.


Album of the Year
Every Girl, Trisha Yearwood
The Highwomen, The Highwomen
Let It Roll, Midland
Never Will, Ashley McBryde
Nightfall, Little Big Town
Your Life is a Record, Brandy Clark

For several years running, the CMAs have surprised us with the inclusion of some truly worthy albums on their second ballot, and this year was no exception. That so many of those projects were by women provided a nice counterbalance to the sausage-fest that was the Entertainer of the Year line-up.

The albums by Ashley McBryde and The Highwomen earned unanimous support, while the latest from Brandy Clark and the long-overdue comeback from Trisha Yearwood rallied four votes apiece. Midland and Little Big Town each garnered enough support to make the cut, as well. Of note: None of the crew voted for Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard, which is considered by most pundits to be the frontrunner to win the actual CMA award. Beyond the Lambert set that we found disappointing, CMA voters could also choose from decent to dreadful albums by Jason Aldean, Dylan Scott (???), Kelsea Ballerini, and Morgan Wallen.

Notably missing from the Showcase list: There is one very obvious sin of omission on the second ballot: Tanya Tucker’s While I’m Livin’, which won the Grammy for Best Country Album just a few months ago and which has also been nominated by the Americana Music Association for their own Album of the Year award. CMA voters weren’t likely to go for Tyler Childers’ Country Squire or Tami Neilson’s CHICKABOOM!, but to exclude a successful comeback album from a genre legend like Tucker is simply indefensible.


Single of the Year

“Bluebird,” Miranda Lambert
“The Bones,” Maren Morris
“Heartache Medication,” Jon Pardi
“More Hearts Than Mine,” Ingrid Andress
“Some Of It,” Eric Church

The good news: This year’s Showcase list included 133% more women’s voices than last year’s did. That number is still in the single-digits and represents well below half of the total list, but it’s at least a hint of progress. Beyond that glimmer of hope, the Showcase list for this category was, once again, just grim. Only Church’s “Some Of It” and Lambert’s “Bluebird”– her first solo #1 single in eight years– received unanimous votes, while the hits from Morris, Pardi, and Andress all mustered enough support to round out the ballot.

Notably missing from the Showcase list: Though it wasn’t a radio hit, Tucker’s Grammy-winning “Bring My Flowers Now” was a major oversight for this ballot, as was Tyler Childers’ Grammy-nominated “All Your’n.” Some confusion as to what the official singles from The Highwomen project actually were– “Redesigning Women” had the high-profile music video, while “The Highwomen” and “Crowded Table” were sort-of promoted to AAA and country radio, respectively– likely accounts for their omission here. Both Justin Bieber and Gwen Stefani made the Showcase list as duet partners, though, so they could both end up as multiple CMA nominees this year.


Song of the Year
“Bluebird,” Miranda Lambert
“The Bones,” Maren Morris
“Die From a Broken Heart,” Maddie & Tae
“Even Though I’m Leaving,” Luke Combs
“Heartache Medication,” Jon Pardi
“More Hearts Than Mine,” Ingrid Andress

Another weak Showcase list led to scattered voting. Only Maddie & Tae’s overdue return to the top of the charts (six years, for those keeping score) was a unanimous choice among the crew, most of whom could not muster enough enthusiasm to vote for a full slate of five nominees.

Notably missing from the Showcase list: That Church’s “Some Of It” was recognized in the Single of the Year category but not this one is bizarre, given how well-regarded he is as a songwriter and how “advice songs” tend to fare well with this kind of thing. They bricked at radio because of course they did, but Mickey Guyton’s “What Are You Gonna Tell Her” and Caylee Hammack’s “Small Town Hypocrite” remain two of the best-written songs mainstream country has produced in years. Instead, voters will choose from middling radio fodder from the likes of Brice, Wallen, Matt Stell, and Lady [Redacted].


Best New Artist
Mickey Guyton
Caylee Hammack
Cody Johnson
Carly Pearce
Caitlyn Smith

As always, that artists can be nominated in this category twice and some fast-and-loose definitions of the word “new” made for an odd Showcase list. Guyton and Hammack garnered broad support from the crew, while Johnson and Pearce made our cut for the second year in a row. Smith, a highly-regarded singer-songwriter, has been a known commodity for years now, but a couple of us were still happy to vote for her instead of the likes of Jordan Davis, Tim Dugger (?), Riley Green, Michael Ray, or Bitches Tenpenny.

Notably missing from the Showcase list: In a pleasant surprise, HARDY and Gone West were both omitted. Runaway June deservedly scored a top 10 hit with “Buy My Own Drinks” during the eligibility period and are a hell of a lot better than any of the non-Cody Johnson men who made the list. Looking ahead to next year, we’re bullish on Reyna Reynolds, who just pitched her debut single to radio. Outside of the mainstream, Gabe Lee and Orville Peck are making some of the coolest music in country this year.


Female Vocalist of the Year

Brandy Clark
Ashley McBryde
Tanya Tucker
Carrie Underwood
Trisha Yearwood

A banner year for women in country music resulted in a spirited ballot: Many of us would have gladly voted for more than five worthy nominees from the deep field who made the second ballot. Ultimately, Brandy Clark earned unanimous favor, while McBryde and Underwood posted strong showings for the second year in a row. Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris had our support elsewhere on the ballot, but they were both edged out of our picks by the phenomenal comeback efforts of Tucker and Yearwood.

Notably missing from the Showcase list: If Ruthie Collins somehow mustered enough support to make the second ballot, that Mickey Guyton did not says an awful lot about the CMAs’ voting base, none of it good. And Tami Neilson’s “You Were Mine” remains the year’s finest vocal performance. Rhiannon Giddens is also doing next-level work, but both of her albums from the eligibility period were collaborative projects.


Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks Bentley
Eric Church
Luke Combs
Jon Pardi
Chris Stapleton

A few stray votes here and there, but the consensus picks produced the exact same line-up as last year!

Notably missing from the Showcase list: In a telling parallel to the Female Vocalist ballot, that Darius Rucker didn’t make the Showcase list says an awful lot of awful. Brett Eldredge made the cut despite his new material falling outside of the eligibility window, just for sake of comparison.


Vocal Duo Or Group of the Year

Brothers Osborne
The Chicks
Maddie & Tae
Midland
Runaway June

Per usual, lack of enthusiasm across these two categories resulted only in enough consensus for a combined ballot. And, as always, that’s how both the CMAs and ACMs should proceed anyway.  Brothers Osborne, Maddie & Tae, Midland, and Runaway June all earned strong support again this year, while The Chicks’ return– and “Gaslighter” did briefly score them airplay at country radio, so hush– bumped out perennial nominee Little Big Town.

Notably missing from the Showcase list: Seeing as his Pistol Annies never made the cut, it’s not really a surprise that The Highwomen and Hot Country Knights didn’t, either. Delta Rae, as ever, deserves a mention, too.

 


Musician of the Year

Jenee Fleenor
Paul Franklin
Rob McNelley
Danny Rader
Ilya Toshinsky

Only six musicians made the Showcase list, so it feels a bit cruel to nominate only five. But them’s the rules, Derek Wells.

Notably missing from the Showcase list: Given that the eligibility criteria make for a narrow pool of potential candidates, none to speak of.

Vocal Event of the Year
“The Bones,” Maren Morris f Hozier
“Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” Miranda Lambert, Elle King, Caylee Hammack, Maren Morris, Ashley McBryde, and Tenille Townes
“I Hope You’re Happy Now,” Carly Pearce and Lee Brice
“Pick Her Up,” Hot Country Knights f Travis Tritt
“Redhead,” Caylee Hammack f Reba

The aforementioned duets with Bieber and Stefani are likely to figure into the final nominees, but neither made our cut. “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” and “Redhead” both had strong support from our crew, while three other collaborations boasted enough votes to round out the ballot.

Notably missing from the Showcase list: This is another category where the Pistol Annies were inexplicably shut out: It’s noteworthy, then, that Hot Country Knights featuring Travis Tritt made the second ballot while The Highwomen featuring Yola did not. Again, this year’s ballot seems to be laying bare some entrenched biases among the CMA constituency, and it’s not a good look. Given that the Our Native Daughters project was a surprise underperformer at both the Grammys and Americana Music Awards, it is less of a shock that they didn’t figure in here, though they certainly were more deserving than an opportunistic re-recording of “God Bless The U.S.A.”

Music Video of the Year
Carrie Underwood, “Drinking Alone”
Hot Country Knights f Travis Tritt, “Pick Her Up”
Chris Stapleton, “Second One to Know”
Little Big Town, “Sugar Coat”

The bar for country music videos is so low these days that ripping off an iconic White Stripes video from 2001 passes for progress. But it’s not like we weren’t going to go to bat for LEGO versions of Chris and Morgane Stapleton. As ever, our enthusiasm in this category was measured, at best.

Notably missing from the Showcase list: The all-star video for The Highwomen’s “Redesigning Women” would have given voters an opportunity to recognize a slew of the genre’s most notable women; at this point, though, it isn’t a surprise that they passed on that chance.


For the stats fans, here’s a run-down of the artists who we slated for multiple nominations on our best-case scenario ballot this year:

5: Maren Morris (4 solo, 1 with The Highwomen)

4: Dierks Bentley (2 solo, 2 with Hot Country Knights), Miranda Lambert

3: Eric Church, Luke Combs, Caylee Hammack, Ashley McBryde, Jon Pardi, Carrie Underwood

2: Ingrid Andress, Brandy Clark, Hot Country Knights, Little Big Town, Maddie & Tae, Midland, Carly Pearce, Chris Stapleton, Travis Tritt, Trisha Yearwood

11 Comments

  1. You all have Carrie Underwood in EOTY, Female, and Music Video but don’t list her in the best case noms tallies at the bottom.

  2. I actually like the Kelsea Ballerini and Morgan Wallen albums and don’t find them dreadful. They aren’t masterpieces but among mainstream country I found them to be pretty good.

  3. Once again, you guys have outdone yourself and all I can say is from your mouths to God’s ears (it’s about time they started getting it right).
    Needless to say I find it odd that Morgan Wallen’s 2 years old album is somehow STILL eligible.

  4. @ Raymond,

    The wording was a bit askew there: I meant that all of the albums left on the Showcase list fall within a range from decent to dreadful. I didn’t care much for Ballerini’s album, but I do think “hole in the bottle” is easily the best single she’s released to date, and it isn’t even close. I’d happily never hear Wallen again, though. He can’t sing, and I don’t think his POV adds anything interesting or distinctive to the genre.

    And to Gabe’s point: That album is two years old and shouldn’t even have been eligible, but the CMAs gonna CMA…

  5. Good thing there’s a lack of Bromeisters on this dais…though that doesn’t necessarily mean this decrepit sub-genre is absolutely dead yet.

    And it’s good to see Trisha back in the running (twelve years between albums is way too long), and Carrie being perennially there, for female artist of the year. The two of them, separately, got a large amount of praise for their performances at the Kennedy Center Honors last December in tribute to Linda Ronstadt.

  6. Jonathan I think the reason why Morgan Wallen’s album is eligible is due to higher chart peak on the Country Album chart.

  7. @ Raymond

    Ah, got it. In as much as I don’t think that particular rule makes sense at all, that does clarify the inclusion of Wallen’s album. Thanks!

  8. DOLLYS not on ANY lists???? Shes been more visible and present in the public eye than most of these nominees. Thru tough times shes been a ray of hope to EVERY generation and age group in the past year…earning even the youngest NEW fans. She should be on entertainer of the year…or at least some honorary award should ve given for, off the top of my head…perhaps Busiest Legend award…or MOST uplifting and inspirational AWARD!!

  9. @Joanna,

    Dolly did make the second ballot for Female Vocalist this year, but she hasn’t been on the Showcase list for Entertainer of the Year in any of the years we’ve been compiling this post. The last truly veteran act to make any waves at the CMAs was Johnny Cash, who received posthumous recognition.

    That the genre pays so much lip-service to honoring its legacy but never actually recognizes their late-career work, no matter how worthy it is, is surely an important conversation! Hell, that’s the whole premise of Tanya Tucker’s “Bring My Flowers Now!”

  10. Glad to see Brandy Clark’s “Your Life Is a Record” nominated for album of the year. I like it better than Trisha’s “Every Girl” and AB’s “Never Will” (don’t have the other nominated albums.) I also like it better than the Chicks’ “Gaslighter”. I see BC is also nominated for female vocalist. I love her as a vocalist (seen her live twice) but i doubt that she has any chance of winning that.

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