Kenny Chesney leads with nine nominations. Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum, and Brad Paisley follow.
Check out the entire list of nominees here.
Kenny Chesney leads with nine nominations. Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum, and Brad Paisley follow.
Check out the entire list of nominees here.
It’s a strong concept. But the fairly flat delivery and a production that never takes off keeps things a little too grounded in reality for it to actually sound like the escapism it celebrates.
Written by Kenny Chesney and Brett James
The countdown concludes. Scroll down to the bottom to hear samples of each song and to share your comments.
Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Four: #10-#1
Love Done Gone
Individual Rankings: #1 – Leeann; #1 – Jonathan; #13 – Tara
While many might get caught up in Billy Currington’s smoldering love songs, he’s really the most charming when he loosens up and has a little fun. While “Love Done Gone” is technically about lost love, Currington’s breezy performance along with the festive horns makes it seem more freeing than heartbreaking. As a result, the song turns out to be his most compelling since “Good Directions.” – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: #4 – Tara; #6 – Dan; #9 – Ben; #12 – Kevin
A 90’s-throwback gem, “Amen” shimmers in a different way than most of the songs on this list. There’s no striking life lesson or clever turn of phrase – just a fresh hook and an earnest, slightly unconventional love story between a preacher’s son and a farmer’s daughter. But there’s magic in its recipe: from the charmingly organic arrangement to the endearingly spirited performance to the adorably written story line – “whooped and hollered” tops my favorite phrases of 2011 – “Amen” is the sweetest package sent to country radio in years. – Tara Seetharam
Individual Rankings: #2 – Jonathan; #5 – Dan; #5 – Tara; #19 – Ben
Of all of the many, many things “Sparks Fly” proves that Taylor Swift understands, perhaps the most important is this: If you’re going to order someone to, “Drop everything now,” you’d better make sure they have reasons to want to. – Jonathan Keefe
Threaten Me With Heaven
Individual Rankings: #3 – Kevin; #7 – Leeann; #9 – Tara; #13 – Dan; #13 – Jonathan
Can anyone be this strong when facing down their rapidly approaching death? Perhaps only in song. For those who can pull this off in real life, their faith blows away those who can merely move mountains. – Kevin John Coyne
The Civil Wars
Individual Rankings: #3 – Jonathan; #4 – Sam; #7 – Tara; #8 – Leeann; #8 – Dan
“Barton Hollow” may be a song about a dead man walking, but, with its stomping percussion line and force-of-nature vocal performances, it plays more like a determined march right to the front-line of a war zone. If the Devil’s going to follow the Civil Wars wherever they go, they sound more than ready to throw down. – Jonathan Keefe
Zac Brown Band
Individual Rankings: #1 – Tara; #6 – Jonathan; #7 – Sam; #9 – Leeann; #11 – Ben; #15 – Kevin
A piano, a wanderer’s tale and killer vocals are the bones of this song– none of which are unique to country music. And yet, “Colder Weather” pleads like the best country songs, hurts like the loneliest of country stories. It serves as an elegant reminder that while country music is sometimes marked by a fiddly sparkle, it can also turn up in the form of pure emotion – and how Brown emotes. His performance is both soulful and skillful, embodying the rambler’s spectrum of emotions with chilling accuracy – longing, regret, defeat, hunger – right down to the final line that rings hauntingly hollow: “It’s a shame about the weather / But I know soon we’ll be together / And I can’t wait til then.” – Tara Seetharam
You and Tequila
Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter
Individual Rankings: #2 – Ben; #3 – Leeann; #3 – Dan; #9 – Kevin; #10 – Tara; #17 – Sam
“You and Tequila” is a great reminder of just how good Kenny Chesney can be when he’s not releasing the same song over and over again. In classic Matraca Berg fashion, “You and Tequila” is a deftly constructed lyric that displays intelligence and self-awareness, while the beautiful acoustic arrangement makes “Tequila” easily one of the year’s finest and most memorable singles. Grace Potter’s sweet harmony adds a delicious icing to the cake.- Ben Foster
Hell on Heels
Individual Rankings: #2 – Leeann; #2 – Tara; #4 – Jonathan; #8 – Kevin; #11 – Dan; #13 – Ben
For those of us who think that Miranda Lambert is one of the bright spots in an otherwise bleak mainstream country landscape these days, could there have been much more exciting news than that she would be hooking up with Ashley Monroe, somebody that we at Country Universe have previously lamented going under the radar, to form a trio with songwriter Angaleena Presley? Happily, the prospect of such an exciting trio did not disappoint, as the Pistol Annies turned out to be the most refreshing act of the year with any chance of mainstream success.
Their debut single, “Hell on Heels,” signaled that the group were a force to be reckoned with, both in attitude and artistry. From the beginning swampy guitar riffs, it’s obvious that the characters in this song are going to live up to the fiery title. Furthermore, the Annies turn in a performance that is so eerily calm that it effectively creates the intended aggression of the story. As a result, “Hell on Heels” is one of the most unique and refreshing singles to get anywhere near a radio playlist in 2011. – Leeann Ward
Cost of Livin’
Individual Rankings: #1 – Dan; #3 – Ben; #6 – Tara; #7 – Kevin; #7 – Jonathan; #9 – Sam; #12 – Leeann
The toll of a corrupt, abusive economy, encapsulated in one man’s fractured personal account. If that sounds a bit like an “I am the 99%” speech, it’s a testament to how well “Cost of Livin'” – begun in 2008, long before mass havoc finally led to mass protest – found the pulse of present-day America. The brilliant choice to frame the song as a job interview allows it to explore both why Dunn’s character deserves the work he and his family needs, and why he likely won’t get it.
In short, the most frighteningly real song of 2011. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: #1 – Kevin; #1 – Ben; #3 – Tara; #4 – Dan; #8 – Sam; #10 – Leeann; #17 – Jonathan
You know what I love about Taylor Swift? She has a real knack for tapping into emotions and experiences that are personal to her, but conveying them in such a way that any listener can see it as his or her own story set to music. The deeper and more personal she gets, the more we feel it as listeners.
Some might write off “Mean” as a cheap comeback to the oft-heard criticism that “Taylor Swift can’t sing,” but to do so is to miss the full scope of feelings that the song addresses. It speaks to anyone who’s been insulted or disrespected by those who cross the line between constructive criticism and plain cruelty, doing so with some of Swift’s most raw and honest lyrics to date.
It all makes for a most delicious slice of musical catharsis. In addition to being one of the flat-out best lyrics Swift has written, the song features a Shania Twain-esque singalong melody, not to mention one of the coolest and countriest productions of any mainstream release this year. In multiple aspects, “Mean” is clearly the work of an artist who was willing to step outside the box, making it a standout achievement for Swift, and a definite standout moment on radio playlists.
I can see a few jaws dropping at this somewhat divisive selection, but we make no apologies for it. A case could be made for a number of other worthy songs taking this top spot, but for me there’s just no getting round the fact that “Mean” is the one 2011 single release that I will be replaying the most in years to come. Thus, it’s a great pleasure to name “Mean” our top single of 2011. – Ben Foster
It’s that time of year again! The time when we all dutifully tune in to the CMA Awards show, raise our eyebrows at the “What the heck are they doing here?” award presenters, and afterwards complain about how totally un-country the whole show was. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t wait.
We’re pleased to share the Country Universe staff picks for this year’s CMA Awards, as well as our predictions of who the winners will be. This year we have some highly competitive categories in which predicting the winners is quite difficult, leading to some significantly divergent picks among our writing staff. Agree? Disagree? Join in the discussion in the comment thread below, and let us know.
The CMA Awards telecast will air on Wednesday, November 9, 8pm Eastern on ABC-TV. We will be live blogging the show here at Country Universe, so do be sure to drop by and join in the fun!
Dan: I can imagine anyone but Urban taking it, but I like Jonathan’s logic.
Ben: It’s hard to bet on the Entertainer award going to a female artist, but it seems Swift has undoubtedly had the biggest year of all the nominees. Her album sold like hotcakes, and produced a trio of killer radio singles, while she topped that off with her Speak Now tour. That combination should bag her this year’s top prize.
Leeann: Paisley could take it again, but my money’s on the CMA wanting to give it to fresh blood this year. Taylor Swift is who probably actually deserves it, however.
Jonathan: Paisley is probably the most logical pick, but he didn’t figure as heavily into the nominations this year as he could have, so I’m wondering if the voters have cooled on him as much as the crew here at CU have of late. Swift’s live show should be a factor in this category, but she has a whole lot of gender bias to overcome, and there seems to be at least something of a backlash against her in the country community post-Fearless. Which leaves the ubiquitous Shelton, who has been something of a new “Everywhere Man” for the genre over the past year.
Kevin: I think Swift will win because she had the highest profile year. But I think Aldean defines the genre in 2011, for better or for worse. Mostly worse.
Tara: As I’ve said before, this is the most appropriate way for the voters to reward Swift’s monster success, and for the first time at the CMAs, I truly feel she deserves this award. I’m particularly impressed with the way she continues to cultivate her relationship with her fans. I just hope the voters don’t pair this award with the FVOTY award.
Dan: Aldean’s not my thing, but he’s the biggest guy in the field by an unignorable margin. More than anything, I think the indie Broken Bow Records deserves props for building their flagship artist so well.
Ben: I’m largely indifferent to this particular field of nominees (save possibly Keith Urban), but Aldean’s massive success should most likely nab him his first Male Vocalist trophy.
Leeann: Again, I think it’s Shelton’s night to sweep in order to shake things up this year. He and Urban have the strongest voices in the category anyway.
Jonathan: Urban’s the only one of the lot who has released even one single I’ve liked in the past year, so he’d get my vote. Aldean has the commercial clout, sure, but quality has to count for something, right? Voters have looked at the word “Vocalist” in the category name and have passed over Chesney for years, and I wonder if they’ll do the same to Aldean here. I’m thinking yes.
Kevin: Urban’s the one who I can stand to listen to. But if Shelton was able to win last year, I don’t see how he loses this year. Not post-Voice and “Honey Bee.”
Tara: It makes me sad that I can’t find a solid reason to support Urban or Paisley, both of whom I used to feel passionately about. And in all honesty, I can’t find a solid reason to support any of these guys, based on their output during the eligibility period. I’m going to blindly back Urban –who, despite being “Urban-lite” these days, is at least consistent– and predict that Shelton’s amped public profile will give him the edge with voters.
Dan: Come ACM season, I’ll be all for Lambert; Pistol Annies and Four The Record prove she’s using her new commercial powers nobly. But I like Swift’s performances on Speak Now, and that album just applies more to this awards cycle.
Ben: Swift is the overall strongest contender, but I could see voters seizing the opportunity to recognize Evans, who released a new album and had a number one single during the eligibility period. I wouldn’t rule Lambert out either, though she didn’t have as strong a year as she did in 2010. But I doubt this will be Underwood’s year, and McBride’s was essentially a filler nomination, so I’d say it’s down to Swift, Evans, and Lambert. (But, like Dan, I will totally be Team Miranda when the ACMs roll around)
Leeann: I reflexively say Lambert should win, but Swift has had the best year and will likely win as a result. I won’t be heart broken if Lambert takes it though.
Jonathan: There’s a part of me that would vote for Lambert on principle and out of loyalty, but I can’t argue with a simple mathematical inequality: “Back to December,” “Mean,” and “Sparks Fly” > “Only Prettier,” “Heart Like Mine” and “Baggage Claim.” Had her label been campaigning harder that she’s never won this award, Evans could’ve been a bigger threat here, but Lambert’s ongoing momentum should carry her to a repeat win.
Kevin: Can this power couple nonsense be derailed? Probably not, so while I’d rather see Swift get it over Lambert, I’m doubtful it would happen. My real fantasy would be for the only non-winner, Sara Evans, to take it. For prosperity’s sake, and for actually putting out a great single that I failed to realize was great until it was already a hit.
Tara: This is a tough one for me. Lambert’s worked the genre like no other female has this past year and a half, but the singles she’s released in the eligibility period have been so-so. Swift’s put out some solid material, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to support her winning a vocalist award. And then there’s Underwood, who’s been relatively quiet on the radio front, but whose stunning performance of “How Great Thou Art” back in April went viral and serves as a reminder of what I firmly believe is one of the finest voices in the genre. I’m going with my gut and backing Underwood, but I think the voters will reward Lambert again, which is fine with me.
Dan: Seriously, why not the Civil Wars? They’ve sold about as many albums (200,000-ish) as everyone besides Sugarland without the support of a major label. Not to mention they just made the most interesting music.
Ben: I’m supporting the Civil Wars on principle, but it’s a no-brainer that Sugarland’s hot streak is not over yet.
Leeann: I love The Civil Wars. The end.
Jonathan: Yet more evidence that this category should be merged with Vocal Group of the Year to cut the deadweight. Though the Civil Wars getting in instead of the JaneDear Girls is a nice testament to the fact that the CMAs, every so often, can exercise good taste and discretion.
Kevin: Sugarland’s album was atrocious. The Civil Wars are in the running for my favorite set of the year. Easy call for me.
Tara: Can Sugarland hurry up and release a new, redeeming album, please?
Dan: Lady A were between albums. Some variety this year, please.
Ben: It’ hard to bet against Lady Antebellum, but the Zac Brown band gave us a strong album and two of the year’s most memorable hit singles (“As She’s Walking Away” and “Colder Weather”), and I predict that they will be rewarded justly.
Leeann: Zac Brown Band has a good chance with the best music in the category, but Lady A just might not be out yet.
Jonathan: Little Big Town’s brilliant “Little White Church” should’ve put them back in the mix for good, but they really botched the single releases from their album and are right back to being also-rans. The Band Perry will settle for the “New Artist” award as a consolation prize this year, which leaves Lady A and Zac Brown Band to duke it out. In terms of the quality of their output, Zac Brown Band has Lady A dead to rights, but is that enough to stop the trio’s awards-show juggernaut? Let’s hope so.
Kevin: Zac Brown Band is the only option both realistic and palatable.
Tara: This is the first of these categories that I feel strongly about this year. Based on the strength of You Get What You Give, Zac Brown Band deserves to nab this award, hands down. But I’ll go against my co-bloggers here and guess that Lady Antebellum still has the industry wrapped around its finger.
Dan: Church seems the most likely to have a long, interesting career and probably deserves the win. I just don’t want to encourage “Homeboy,” I guess.
Ben: Thompson Square and The Band Perry are the only two nominees whom I would still consider “new” artists, and I think The Band Perry beats Thompson Square any day. Bryan, however, did reach a new level of stardom over the past year, so he stands a good chance at wining nonetheless.
Leeann: While it’s strange that with three albums Church is still in the New Artist category, it’s probably that same reason that he should win the award, not to mention that he had the strongest album of the nominees in the past year.
Jonathan: Young’s the best singer in the field, but his material is still too inconsistent in quality for me to get on board with him. Church, on the other hand, finally made good on his early promise and his considerable hype with Chief and would be a deserving winner, as would the uneven but still pretty good The Band Perry. As the only nominee with any other nominations, they have to be considered the slight favorites over Crest WhiteStrips.
Kevin: I think Church’s big breakthrough happened close enough to the voting window to give him a slight edge. I’d like to see Chris Young get the boost from a win.
Tara: Of all the nominees, I’m the most excited for Chris Young’s future in country music – his vocal talent is tremendous, and even though it falls right outside of the eligibility period, Neon is one of my favorite releases of this year. Based on their other major nominations, though, I think The Band Perry will take this.
Dan: Here’s a logical place to acknowledge Aldean, though I hope voters think twice about it.
Ben: In my book, Swift and the Zac Brown Band are the only truly worthy winners (and I’m still scratching my head over why a Blake Shelton “Six Pak” was even nominated in the first place). To me, the most intriguing thing about Swift is that she really does seem to get a little better and a little deeper with each album. Speak Now is her crowning achievement to date, and in my opinion, the best album on this ballot.
Leeann: It hurts my heart to think it, but Jason Aldean’s big year will likely earn him the award for best album, even though numbers isn’t how such an award should be selected.
Jonathan: Speak Now is Swift’s strongest album, but, “Mean” notwithstanding, it’s also her most unabashedly pop album. And song-for-song, I still think You Get What You Give is slightly better. But Aldean has been a steady seller, and he’s big enough that he has to win one of the major awards, and this one’s his best bet.
Kevin: “All songs composed by Taylor Swift” impressed the heck out of me, not the least of which because the songs were far better than her earlier work. Zac Brown Band’s a close second for me.
Tara: Speak Now is solid, but You Get What You Give is the better example of how to move this genre forward, with its delicious yet reverent mishmash of influences. But I think this is where the voters will recognize the often overlooked commercial success of Jason Aldean.
Dan: It’d be heartening to see The Band Perry’s risky, rootsy release get its due. Plus: the single alone is 3x Platinum, better than any of its competitors can claim.
Ben: “Colder Weather” and “If I Die Young” are the two strongest competitors, but for me, a cool folksy arrangement puts the latter over the edge.
Leeann: This is tough. I can actually see any of these singles winning, but I have a good feeling about “If I Die Young”, though I’d love to see “Colder Weather” prove me wrong.
Jonathan: This one’s actually a tough call, since all five of the singles are big radio hits and everyone here has multiple nominations. “If I Die Young” is the best-produced single of the lot, but I’m predicting that Kelly Clarkson’s endless likability gives the edge to her duet with Aldean.
Kevin: Love the Band Perry record most, followed by Sara Evans. But this is the CMA awards, and Shelton managed to be both completely vanilla and namedrop Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.
Tara: If I better understood the story in “If I Die Young,” I might be able to get behind it, but I think “Colder Weather” is the more memorable single. It’s my favorite kind of country ballad – killer vocals, gripping melody and palpable emotion. I see the fiery Aldean / Clarkson collaboration taking this one, though. (By the way, dude, “Honey Bee” – really CMA?)
Dan: “If I Die Young” is a flawed composition, but it’s still the most striking and strange one here, and that’s worth something.
Ben: I never though I’d see a CMA Song of the Year field in which Matraca Berg and Deana Carter would compete against Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert. I would so love to see Berg and Carter win the award. I might tend to be slightly biased when it comes to Matraca Berg, but I think “Tequila” is a fine composition on its own merits, and a worthy winner indeed. Still, my gut predicion is that Perry will grab the trophy instead.
Leeann: “Mean” is probably my favorite song in terms of production and melody, but “You and Tequila” is the best song of the nominees.
Jonathan: Berg is a treasure and I like Carter well enough, so it’s nice to see their names on the ballot again, but “You and Tequila” isn’t either of their best compositions. Here’s the thing about “Mean”: What doesn’t work about the song has everything to do with the fact that it shows the extent to which Swift still hasn’t fully figured out her artistic persona. But in terms of melody and overall construction as a stand-alone song? It’s the class of the field. As Dan said, “If I Die Young” is flawed, but it also has a lot going for it and will be a fine, worthy winner when it inevitably takes this.
Kevin: I love “You and Tequila”, but it’s an old song. I’m glad Chesney rediscovered it, but I can’t see it as this year’s Song of the Year. I think “Mean” is the best of the bunch, with the music as clever as the lyrics.
Dan: The Single nod for Jason and Kelly suggests they have the edge here. But my heart echoes a resounding “Go on, son.”
Ben: “As She’s Walking Away” is just so effortlessly charming that it would easily be my first pick, but the cross-genre appeal – and bonus Clarkson star power – of “Don’t You Wanna Stay” make it the most likely winner. The fact that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is also nominated for Single (which “As She’s Walking Away” sadly isn’t) suggests a likely victory in this category.
Leeann: How can I not pull for the Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson when I have a chance? I’m pretty confident that the drama, cross genre appeal, and, yup, the drama again, make “Don’t You Want to Stay” the sure bet though.
Jonathan: “As She’s Walking Away” is one of the purest and truest duets in years, and it could pull some votes from the more traditionalist voters, but the Aldean and Clarkson single just has too much firepower to lose here.
Kevin: If this doesn’t go to Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson, then I no longer understand how CMA voters think.
Dan: It’s my least favorite Paisley video ever, though.
Ben: Swift’s “Mean” is my personal favorite among these nominees, but I’m expecting that voters will show some Shelton love instead.
Jonathan: Paisley has to win something, right? And this also gives the voters a chance to honor some beloved genre vets.
Kevin: I think the video splicing tricks will give Paisley and Alabama an additional edge. Of the five clips, “Mean” is the one I like the most.
Dan: Default underdog support.
Ben: I would love to see this go to the steel guitar man (and preferably not to Dann Huff), but Mac McAnally tends to be the favorite here.
Leeann: I want the steel guitar to represent this year. So, I’ll will it to happen.
Jonathan: Franklin’s the only nominee who hasn’t won previously, and being regarded as long overdue eventually helped McAnally score his first win, leading to his current three-year hot streak.
Kevin: I’ll be rooting for Paul Franklin until he finally wins, but I won’t believe that he’ll win until he finally does.
Tara: What Ben and Kevin said.
Clear as Day
In listening to American Idol winner Scotty McCreery’s debut album, it becomes all too clear that either McCreery is being carefully reared by the unabashedly commercial-minded execs of 19 Entertainment… or that he simply enjoys playing follow-the-leader. The former is most likely, but almost every track on Clear as Day sounds like an emulation of the style of one of country radio’s favorite hitmakers. We get to hear Scotty McCreery play Montgomery Gentry. We get to hear Scotty McCreery play Kenny Chesney. But there are precious few moments in which it sounds like Scotty McCreery is being Scotty McCreery.
“Water Tower Town” sounds like something lifted out of the Montgomery Gentry reject pile circa 2002. “Better Than That” carries a strong thematic resemblance to Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More,” with nothing about it’s story structure feeling at all urgent or revelatory. On another note, it comes as no surprise that “Walk In the Country” was co-written by Urban, as the track clearly has Urban written all over it. (Think “Where the Blacktop Ends”) Such style-mimicking demonstrates the fact that, as a whole, Clear as Day falls into the common trap in which commercialism overshadows an album’s artistic merits.
Somewhat oddly, it’s the two singles released thus far that represent the album at its absolute worst. “I Love You This Big” scans as a grammatically-awkward piece of schmaltz with an uninspired production and a dull, auto-tuned vocal. “The Trouble with Girls” merely sounds like a cute little basket of cliches, as if the writers were more concerned with struggling to find words that rhyme than connecting with a listener on more than a surface level. At the same time, the dramatic orchestral swells in the bridge make the song sound like it’s taking itself way too seriously. It’s all too obvious that the songs’ sole purpose of existence is to serve as inoffensive distractions between radio commercials. They are so carefully calculated so as to make no negative impression that they end up making hardly any impression at all.
In most cases, lyrics rarely scratch below surface level. High school hallways serve as a common stage setting – Little surprise, given McCreery’s age of 18 – with many of the tracks playing like gender-flipped versions of Taylor Swift songs, minus the authenticity and distinct perspective. The title tracks recalls a few mundane details of an encounter with a romantic flame, only to settle for a clumsy grasp at the heart strings by killing the girl off in the end. The songs that work are those that emphasize the melodies and Scotty’s performances above the generally mediocre lyrical content. “Write My Number On My Hand” finds McCreery turning in what is possibly his most engaged performance of the set, with a wink-wink country boy charm that effectively sells the silly lyrics. But that’s not to say that all of the songs are lyrical duds. With “Dirty Dishes,” McCreery taps into the universally acceptable country radio theme of faith, and offers a take that is actually interesting. The song (written by Neil Thrasher, Michael Delaney, and Tony Martin) portrays the narrator’s mother saying “the strangest prayer ever said,” in which she thanks God for dirty dishes, noisy children, slamming doors, et cetera, and then highlighting the positive aspects of common domestic annoyances. Less effectively, however, “That Old King James” scans as an inferior “Three Wooden Crosses”-wannabe. It tracks the life journey of a King James Bible as it is passed down through different family members, but it lacks a clear message to serve as a form of listener payoff.
At its best, Clear as Day continues to offer glimpses of the substantial well of talent McCreery possesses. But at the same time, that talent sounds like it’s a long way from being fully realized. He’s not Josh Turner. He’s not George Strait. He’s not John Michael Montgomery. But when it comes to portraying who Scotty McCreery is as an artist, Clear paints a picture that is disappointingly murky.
It’s always interesting to see how music industry awards reflect (or don’t reflect) larger narratives in the industry itself.
If you’re interested in the narratives behind this year’s CMAs, look no further than the two men who’ve made the biggest strides on the ballot: Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean. Both show up in Entertainer and Male Vocalist, plus Album and Single, plus assorted other stuff. But the marketing approaches that have gotten them there are vastly different.
Shelton’s is the traditional wisdom: cover all media ground with an inoffensive product until the people buy in. So he’s a core act at radio; he’s on a popular TV show (The Voice); he hosted the ACMs; he was in a ton of magazines for his marriage; he Twitters a lot.
Then there’s the Aldean approach: make a distinct product, generate enough radio support to plant the seeds, then go straight to the fans, tour relentlessly, build up word-of-mouth – let the industry come to you. I think it’s the more effective approach, personally. Look at Eric Church, who has a fraction of Shelton’s ubiquity but beat him in first-week album sales and is still beating him cumulatively – no TV spotlights, no gossip mags, no Twitter.
And look at how many acts on this ballot started on indie labels. Aldean, Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band, Thompson Square, the freaking Civil Wars. Major-label power still matters, but it seems to mean less all the time. Media saturation still matters, but it seems to mean less all the time. Music is the only thing that always counts, and even the highly political CMAs are starting to have trouble ignoring it.
Just my thoughts, anyway. What say you to this list?
Who’s In: Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift
Who’s Out: Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown Band
Who’s In: Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney
Who’s Out: Dierks Bentley, George Strait
Who’s In: Sara Evans
Who’s Out: Reba McEntire
Who’s In: The Civil Wars, Thompson Square
Who’s Out: Brooks & Dunn (historical moment!), Joey + Rory
Who’s In: Nobody
Who’s Out: Nobody
Who’s In: The Band Perry, Eric Church, Thompson Square
Who’s Out: Easton Corbin, Jerrod Niemann, Zac Brown Band (won)
Notes: Bryan and Young are both on their second nominations here, but for once there’s no obvious frontrunner. Thompson Square pick up the category-filler nom from Jerrod Niemann. This reminds me: where has Easton Corbin gone?
Notes: Shelton’s is a low-selling EP. Uhhh.
Notes: Nice to see there are still some Matraca Berg fans out there amid the Brantley Gilbert ones. Interestingly, Swift’s first nomination in this category.
Notes: I’m troubled by the fact that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is nominated for Single and “As She’s Walking Away” isn’t.
Notes: The worst Brad Paisley video ever to be nominated here, I think.
Who’s In: Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas
Who’s Out: Brent Mason, Randy Scruggs
Tailgates & Tanlines
Got a little boom in my big truck/Gonna open up the doors and turn it up. – “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)”
Girl you make my speakers go boom boom/Dancin’ on the tailgate in the full moon. – “Drunk on You”
Looking at those two lyrics from Luke Bryan’s new album, you can assume one of two things: Either Bryan was heavily influenced by hip-hop pioneers L’Trimm and their hit “Cars With the Boom,” or Tailgates & Tanlines falls victim to lazy songwriting. With all due respect to Tigra and Bunny, it looks like it’s the latter.
The country references are thrown about so fast and furiously here that duplicates inevitably pop up. There are multiple references to girls dancing on tailgates, squirrels and other assorted critters, moonshine, Dixie cups, dusty boots, old trucks, catfish and tractors. Sometimes the songs are about certain people or places, and sometimes they’re just about setting the RRPM (rural references per minute) record.
Occasionally, the country setting is put to good use. “Harvest Time,” for example, paints a vivid picture of a small town in the middle of its busiest season. “Tailgate Blues” takes many of the familiar references and turns them upside down, as even the usual comforts of quiet country hideaways can’t heal a broken heart.
All too often, though, the songs have no real meat underneath the catchphrases and references. They’re the same tired look at a vast hillbilly paradise – Val-holler, if you will – where the homemade wine is always flowing into Dixie cups, good ol’ boys are always ready to drive around in their trucks to find a good time after a hard day’s work on the farm, and the women are sexual props whose only purpose in life is to dance on tailgates on command.
When Alan Jackson sang “Chattahoochee,” there was so much detail that the listener felt certain that Jackson lived through all those experiences. Bryan’s “Muckalee Creek Water,” by comparison, has no such connection or personal attachment, even though there is a Muckalee Creek near Bryan’s hometown in south Georgia. That song, incidentally, references “a catfish line going bump bump bump,” so if you’re really into onomatopoeia, this is your album of the year.
The real shame is that those throw-away songs are a waste of some tremendous talent. Bryan has a strong voice that can make a good song sound even better. “You Don’t Know Jack,” written by Erin Enderlin and Shane McAnally, gives a sympathetic portrayal to someone trapped by addiction. Sure, it won’t get a concert audience cheering and shouting, but it’s a standout track and one of the better songs of the year. While he is partly responsible for some of the album’s weakest tracks, Bryan also co-wrote some of its best, including “Harvest Time” and “Faded Away” (with Rodney Clawson and Michael Carter, respectively).
“Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” is turning into one of the biggest hits of Bryan’s career, which is bound to influence his future song choices. Good-time party anthems aren’t necessarily bad things, but too many of them on one album overwhelms the rest of the songs. Still, Kenny Chesney had to go through the “She Think My Tractor’s Sexy” phase before he got to covering Guy Clark, so there’s hope for Bryan.
Just leave the “booms” and “bumps” to fight sequences in the old Batman TV show, where they belong.
In some parallel universe where I had actual musical talent and the opportunity to record an album, I suspect I’d forgo the pile of demo tapes sent to unknown artists and just look for awesome album cuts from great songwriters.
Matraca Berg’s catalog of recorded cuts would be a good place to start, an epiphany that serves Kenny Chesney well. Berg is usually associated with female artists, and indeed, this song was originally recorded by Deana Carter, who also co-wrote the song. But Berg’s pen has been responsible for some great moments from Keith Urban and Randy Travis, so it’s no surprise that Chesney does well with this one.
Chesney sings it with more personality and general presence than Carter did, and the record also benefits from picking up the pace toward the end, a choice that would have elevated Berg’s own version as well. The harmony vocal of Grace Potter isn’t essential until the song starts to fade away, but it does ease some of the loneliness embedded in the lyric.
All in all, it’s just nice to hear Chesney singing a great song again.
Written by Matraca Berg and Deana Carter
Listen: You and Tequila
But it is a laid-back, pseudo-philosophical number that has Strait vowing to live for the moment, to enjoy some moonshine, and to not worry about the troubles that weigh other people down.
If Kenny Chesney ever trades in the islands for the honky-tonks, he’ll sound exactly like this.
Written by Dean Dillon, Bubba Strait and George Strait
Listen: Here For a Good Time
This is going to be a really important show, you guys.
Entertainer of the Year: Taylor Swift
Top Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
Top Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley
Album of the Year: Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
Song of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
Single of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
Top Vocal Duo: Sugarland
Top Vocal Group: Lady Antebellum
Top New Artist: The Band Perry
Top Till You Drop:
Vocal Event of the Year: Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson, “As She’s Walking Away”
Music Video of the Year: Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
- – -
10:02 Well, all right, that was fun enough. Kinda. Thanks for playing along, y’all, and have a good night!
9:58 A shocking upset! As shocking as, like, one of those chewy Sweet Tarts.
Entertainer of the Year: Taylor Swift
9:56 Hey, how about next year we get James Taylor to come back and sing with the Dixie Chicks again? Yes or yes?
9:52 They segue into “Sweet Baby James.” At least this pairing makes musical sense.
9:48 Leeann: Zac Brown and James Taylor, Carrie Underwood and Steven Tyler, Jennifer Nettles and Rihanna? Is CMT testing for upcoming Crossroads episodes?
9:45 Was having some trouble with the site for a few minutes there. Now we’re up to Zac Brown Band doing a very cool “Colder Weather” with James Taylor.
9:41 Amazing how only a year and a half ago the idea of Miranda winning one of the really competitive awards still seemed like a pipe dream.
Top Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
9:36 “Love Gets a Hold of You” or something. It sounds okay – almost in the same you’re-gonna-miss-me-boy! vein as “Turn on the Radio,” though. I think we’re all ready for some more mature Reba now. Take a lesson from Martina.
9:34 Reba’s out to sing something or other. I just saw today that “If I Were a Boy” got yanked as a single; this must be the new one?
9:27 Darius Rucker singing “Music from the Heart” with a choir of various ages and developmental disabilities. Very passionate, touching performance.
9:25 Chris Young’s trying out the hatless thing.
9:25 Oh, for real? At least he acknowledged he has too many now.
Top Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley
9:22 I don’t know how I’m still awake through all this. I shouldn’t be saying such things at 9:23.
9:17 Leeann: Martina is worming her way back into my heart again. I’m a soft touch.
9:17 …Who just tweeted, “Holy crap, I’m singing.” Perfect.
9:14 Awesome. It does. This reminds me of Jeannie C. Riley, the spunky honesty of it. And I like to fantasize that she got some inspiration for that opening “honestly, I think I need a drink” line from Drunken Martina.
9:13 Martina’s coming out with “Teenage Daughters.” I really hope this translates well to stage.
Top Vocal Duo: Sugarland
9:10 Kevin: Naomi Judd: The answer to the age-old question, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
9:09 Leeann: Ronnie Dunn sounds so much like Brooks & Dunn. Go figure.
9:07 He looks and sounds like musical Jesus. I mean that in a complimentary way!
9:03 Ronnie Dunn’s coming up with “Bleed Red.” Excited for that, kinda. I think C.M. Wilcox is right and that it’ll work well as an award show performance even if the single itself is a little sleepy (to some of us).
8:56 Leeann: Good. Have Kristian introduce Nettles/Rihanna to show how secure he is about being put on the sideline all the time. We’re convinced.
8:55 True fact: The banner at the top of this post will light up and spin all through this Rihanna-Jennifer Nettles performance. Watch closely!
8:53 She interjects a bit of some song I should probably recognize but don’t, and then “I’ll Fly Away.” And she sounds real good.
8:53 I bet there are some Christian folks out there from Miranda’s life who are like, “We did not say that!”
8:52 A Miranda performance is usually my favorite part of an awards night. But it’s “Heart Like Mine.”
8:44 Eh. Let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about how awesome that live blog over at The 9513 is!
Top Vocal Group: Lady Antebellum
8:41 Or, as our pal Corey Parkman of Farce the Music just put it on Twitter, “I wonder what Sara Evans would sound like if she ever got over that sinus infection.”
8:38 The return of Sara Evans to the ACMs. Last performance I remember from her here was that severely pitch-challenged one of “Coalmine” the night she won Top Female years ago. She sounds better here, but still not up to many of her recorded performances.
8:35 I mean, seriously, y’all. “Need You Now” is the only reason Need You Now has sold like it has, and the album selling like it has is the only reason it’s getting this recognition. “Need You Now” won Song and Single of the Year at last year’s ACMs; couldn’t that have been enough?
8:31 IEIOF432IfffkDdk&*$#vdsadvfdjfpvfs >:(
Album of the Year: Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
8:28 Well, don’t think I was missing much. Such a shame – he truly would be one of the best male vocalists in the game if he had better taste.
8:25 We get a Blake Shelton performance. Don’t recognize the song.
Single of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
8:14 Jason Aldean doing the Colt Ford country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” and it’s every bit as cool you would imagine. (That is, decidedly un-.)
8:09 Apparently their dad’s name is Steve Perry. I snickered harder than I should have.
Best New Artist: The Band Perry
8:07 Kevin: And my favorite of the 57 performances so far is…Taylor Swift. No one can ever accuse me of not having an open mind.
8:05 Kimberly Perry delivers the “well” in “If I Die Young” with way too much spunk. “Well! I’ve had just enough time. So if I do die – y’know, whatever!”
8:03 Whoops, apparently it’s a guitjo/ganjo. Whatever, it’s not like I’m a writer of music-related opinion articles or something!
8:00 Taylor Swift singing “Mean” and strumming the banjo, which is not how I’ve known anyone to play the banjo. Pretty cool scene, though – they’re in front of an old-timey house and the band’s all decked out in their Depression-era best.
7:55 Kevin: Not naming the songwriters for Song of the Year is an absolute disgrace.
[They announced it as “Miranda Lambert, ‘The House That Built Me,'” though she’s not the one who wrote it.]
Song of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
7:53 Finally, we get one: Song of the Year.
7:50 Eric Church doing “Smoke a Little Smoke,” the one single of his I really dig, with verve. BUT THERE STILL HASN’T BEEN A SINGLE AWARD.
7:45 Back from commercial, Keith Urban performing his newest hit, “Without You (Nicole Kidman)(Pt. 3)(Ballad Version).”
7:42 Leeann: Seriously? Still no award yet? What are we watching?
7:38 Dierks Bentley running laps around the arena to “Am I the Only One,” determined to make us like the unlikable.
7:36 Kevin: That’s what I wanted that song to sound like on the album.
7:35 I’ll say this: JNett still has the best stage charisma of any mainstream country star who isn’t Keith Urban.
7:32 Leeann: Half hour in and still no award yet at this…uh…awards show.
7:32 Sugarland’s here, Jennifer apparently with hair extensions, and they’re doing “Tonight.” Figured this would probably be the next single. Like Kevin, I’d like the recorded version if not for the head-cold-ish performance.
7:30 Well, that was fun. Good thing I gave up on the term “country music” meaning anything a few weeks ago!
7:27 Kevin: We’re officially down the rabbit hole.
7:27 They segue into “Walk This Way.”
7:26 Steven Tyler is really good at screaming awesomely and only ok at remembering the words to Carrie Underwood songs.
7:24 Two Soul Surfer ladies come out to introduce Carrie, who’s doing “Undo It.” WITH STEVEN TYLER! OK, I like this now.
7:20 Apparently Dr. Pepper’s current slogan is “There’s nothing like a Dr. Pepper.” Uhhhh.
7:17 Pleasant enough song (“Somewhere Else”), and he’s got that sweet Toby growl going.
7:16 Leeann: It’s nice to like Toby Keith music these days.
7:14 “ARE THEY READY?! DOES ZAC BROWN ENJOY THE FEEL OF HIS ASS IN THE SAND?!” Best Blake line of the night so far.
7:13 The celebrity cheap shots are coming hard and fast, though.
7:10 We are promised no Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan jokes. God? Is that you?!?
7:07 Celine Dion’s here now, and she’s VERY VERY EXCITED! I honestly can’t think of a better Vegas gate-keepeer, though.
7:07 Kevin: Since when did Alabama become a trio? What a poorly cropped picture, lawsuit or not.
7:06 It would be great if, instead of writing songs about how great the classic acts were, today’s artists just figured out how to measure up.
7:04 Leeann: Good. We get this disappointing Paisley song out of the way now.
7:04 “Old Alabama” now.
7:02 Cute-ish opening skit with Blake Shelton “rehearsing for his wedding night” by serenading a blond-wigged Reba with “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking.”
6:52 Leeann: John Rich is so much more tolerable when he’s with Big Kenny.
6:38 The JaneDear Girls just appeared onscreen. When are they un-appearing, I wonder?
6:33 Wynonna and Naomi Judd chilling with Suzanne Alexander now. Colorically speaking, Wynonna has become a human sunset.
6:31 Chris Young is now talking to Storme which means his voice is audible – yay!
6:26 On some red carpet somewhere, GAC’s Storme Warren just presented to Vocal Event award, inevitably, to “As She’s Walking Away.”
6:15 Dierks Bentley will be playing “Am I the Only One” tonight. Have fun, no one!
6:04 Super-jealous of The 9513’s sweet new live blog layout. Also: the smartness of their live-bloggers. Also: the fact that Brady and Brody Vercher are named thusly.
5:59 Red carpet time, woo!! I bet everybody’s totally wearing clothes this year.
[Dan from here on out, unless otherwise noted.]
5:21 I…….this post……AM BORN