Like many country fans who discovered the genre in the nineties, CMT and TNN were central to my experience of discovering music. When CMT shifted to non-music programming, GAC quickly became the channel of choice. But as that channel grew in popularity, it shifted its emphasis to only mainstream country music, losing the diversity that defined it in its early years.
When moving late last year, I switched cable companies. Initially, I thought the best country-related channel I’d gotten in the switch was CMT Pure, which plays only music. Unfortunately, older videos are limited to a 1/2 hour of programming called “Pure Vintage”, a pale comparison to the three-hour early morning extravaganza “CMT Classic” that once ran on CMT proper in the wee hours of the weekend.
By a fluke, I discovered RFD-TV, which bills itself as “Rural America’s Most Important Network.” I could care less about the horse and agriculture shows, but with country music, this channel has hit the jackpot.
Currently airing regularly: vintage episodes of The Porter Wagoner Show, Pop Goes the Country, and Crook & Chase. It’s like going back into the seventies and eighties with the benefit of DVR! To see Don Williams appear as a young artist just getting his start, all skin and bones and sideburns. To see Dolly Parton at the peak of her songwriting talent, expressing it through the confines of the “girl singer” slot on Wagoner’s classic show, outshining everything else by such a wide margin it’s a wonder they didn’t turn the whole show over to her. Or even just to see the legendarily slow-talking Ralph Emery interviewing stars in his youth, and learning that his slow pace wasn’t a product of aging – he’s always talked that way.
I’ve even seen a female artist I didn’t recognize. That’s right, the guy who wrote this didn’t know who this woman was:
That’s Susan Raye, by the way, doing her best to sing a song of seduction while buttoned up from neck to toe. I’d read about her, but there’s no way I would’ve heard this #53 hit “Saturday Night to Sunday Quiet” if not for RFD-TV. Much like I never would’ve asked for the Emmylou Harris box set for Christmas if I hadn’t seen the “High-Powered Love” video on CMT, a song that made it to #63 at radio.
The CMA Awards should be the evening every year where country music is shown in the best possible light. However, it’s been many years now since the CMA fully took advantage of the opportunities that prime-time slot presents. Here are ten ways the show can get back on track, and maybe even be better than ever.
1. Expand the Ballot
Limiting the second ballot to only twenty entries per category was a disaster, resulting in some truly lackluster nominees. Take a page from the Grammy playbook and put all eligible submissions on the second ballot, regardless of vote total. Have the CMA voters choose five entries from a wider swath of nominees, and create a more level playing field for all of the labels, major and indie.
2. Limit the Number of Entries per Artist
The CMA can go one step further and improve the Grammy model by eliminating the first ballot entirely, and allowing each artist to submit only one entry, of their choice, for consideration. This will help avoid embarrassments like we saw this year, where Alan Jackson was represented in the Song of the Year category by “Good Time” instead of “Small Town Southern Man.”
3. Tighten up the Categories
Take the long-clamored for step of combining Vocal Duo & Vocal Group into one category. Limit to one the nominations an artist can get in the “New Artist/Horizon” category. Amend the antiquated Song of the Year loophole that allows a song to be nominated two years in a row.
4. Add Live Performance and Songwriter, Artist-Songwriter Categories
Eliminate the confusion caused by the Entertainer category, which has unfortunately morphed into a “biggest tour” award in the post-Garth era, by adding a Live Performance category. This will help focus voter attention on all dimensions of the Entertainer category. Create two new categories for songwriters - Songwriter of the Year and Artist-Songwriter of the Year. With artists and musicians already being honored individually, equivalent recognition for writers is long overdue. Create the separate categories to ensure that high-profile writers like Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley or Taylor Swift don’t overwhelm non-artist songwriters in the same category.
5. Move the Show Back to the Opry House
The scale of an arena is a total mismatch for a televised award show. The CMA Awards always sounded great in the Opry house, and it connects the show back with its own history and that of country music. If the show must be kept downtown, move it to the Ryman.
in the Country Music Hall of Fame later this year. Tillis enters the Hall of Fame in the performer category for artists that received national prominence between World War II and 1975. In addition to being a former CMA Entertainer of the Year, he’s also the writer of classics for other artists, most notably “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”, “Detroit City”, “I Ain’t Never”, “Burning Memories” and “Honey (Open That Door.)” Here’s hoping daughter Pam will help induct him, just like she did at the Opry this year!
Gill is the third inductee in the new performer’s category for artists that received national prominence from 1975 to the present day, following Alabama in 2005 and George Strait in 2006. At age 50, Gill might be the youngest living inductee ever, but I have to check to make sure that’s right. Gill had a few radio hits in the eighties, but finally broke through commercially in 1989, with his mega-hit “When I Call Your Name.” He’s won 18 Grammy awards and 18 CMA awards since then.
Ralph Emery is most widely known as the long-time host of TNN shows Nashville Now and On the Record, but also had an illustrious career on radio, including a stint as the announcer for the Grand Ole Opry. You can read more about all of this year’s inductees in the Hall’s official press release.
If I was a betting man, I’d have wagered that Reba McEntire would be going in this year, and I still suspect she’ll be the inductee within the next year or two. Quite frankly, she’s due, as is Emmylou Harris. Maybe next year will be the year of the woman?