The third most prestigious country music industry award nominations – but the most important ones handed out in the spring – have been announced. Here’s a rundown of all the major categories, along with some back-of-the-envelope analysis:
Florida Georgia Line
Who’s In: Jason Aldean, Garth Brooks, Florida Georgia Line
Who’s Out: Blake Shelton, George Strait, Taylor Swift
Last year’s winner, George Strait, didn’t get a return invitation, but Garth Brooks, who has won this award six times before, returns to the competition. Much like Strait’s farewell tour was a reminder of his extensive popularity, Garth’s ability to sell out several dates per city overshadows the lukewarm reception to his new material at radio and retail. Taylor Swift’s exit is directly tied to her cutting ties with the genre. Jason Aldean’s return makes logical sense, but it’s quite the mystery to see Blake Shelton gone and Florida Georgia Line in.
Despite the Grammys and even the ACM’s demonstrating more consistent taste over the past few years, the CMA’s remain the most significant industry awards that honor country music. This year’s slate of nominees gives the organization an opportunity to build on the credibility of last year’s George Strait victory. His win for Entertainer saved a dismal show in its closing minutes.
Here’s our take on this year’s contenders:
Entertainer of the Year
George Strait – Kevin, Jonathan, Tara, Ben
George Strait – Jonathan, Kevin, Tara, Ben
Kevin: I’d settle for a Miranda Lambert victory, as she had an amazing year. But my first choice is George Strait, who deserves a fourth trophy for that record-breaking final concert. The rest of these nominees have either won before or still seem to have their best days ahead of them. There will never be another George Strait again.
Jonathan: The appalling sense of entitlement Jason Aldean has shown in his seemingly endless campaign of adult temper-tantrums disguised as interviews since these nominees were announced makes it all the more satisfying that the voters didn’t exclusively consider commercial and touring stats when voting for this award. I think that will likely continue with the final ballots, giving Strait the win here as a final send-off– a win that, as Kevin said, Strait’s last concert fully justifies based on even Aldean’s logic.
Tara: I have a feeling I’ll be pulling for Lambert next year, but 20 months after seeing it, I’m still high on Strait’s phenomenal farewell show. He deserves this.
Ben: Why not? Miranda will have plenty more shots at it, but this could be our last chance to see George Strait accept a CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy. Let the cowboy ride away in style.
Written by Brandy Clark, Bob DiPiero and Shane McAnally
The most successful records Toby Keith has had lately have been about drinking or about being American. It’s easy to see the title of “Drunk Americans” and assume that Keith is stitching the two themes together in an act of cynicism.
That assumption would be wrong. Shockingly wrong, actually. I dare say that “Drunk Americans” manages to elevate both the drinking song and the patriotic song by bringing the two together. It’s so sharply written that I planned to document all those great songs Toby Keith has written lately that never got sent to radio, but amazingly, he didn’t write this one.
This year’s CMA nominees are the best in years, with multiple nominations for Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and Brandy Clark. Country radio may still be shunning women, but their embrace by CMA voters suggests that the industry knows who is really leading the way in the genre these days.
Entertainer of the Year
Who’s In: Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban
Who’s Out: Jason Aldean, Taylor Swift
George Strait, a surprise winner last year, is nominated again in a year that includes his record-shattering final concert. Miranda Lambert’s domination of this year’s nominations extends to the big category, where she competes for the first time since 2010.
If you’re going to keep revisiting the same themes, you might as well take some risks with your delivery.
Kenny Chesney’s new single sounds fresher and more engaging than anything he’s done in a very long time. It’s easy to miss that he’s singing about what he always sings about: nostalgia for growing up in the country with American rock as the soundtrack.
What makes “American Kids” work more than a lot his attempts with this theme is that sounds like he learned something listening to those Mellencamp and Springsteen records. This record oozes charm and mature authority, like he’s finally lived long enough to look back and say, “Hey. We were kinda crazy back then. But we all turned out alright in the end.”
Written by Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally
There are at least three things we can always count on: death, taxes, and the inevitable swamp of summer songs that overwhelm country radio annually beginning around this time of the year.
There’s nothing wrong with a good summer song, and one would think that a duo with as much natural charisma as Thompson Square would certainly be capable of delivering one of the better ones. As it turns out, “Testing the Water” is the type of song that lives or dies based on what the performer brings to it. The hook comes off as a weak attempt at clever wordplay and generally contributes nothing to the song as a whole. The lyrics that are consistently dull as a brick right down to the predictable rhyming of “water” with “hotter” – unmistakably identifying the song as the product of a three-head Nashville songwriting committee.
Equally unfortunate is the fact that the Thompsons’ efforts to sell the song are mired by tin-eared production and tastelessly processed vocals, offering little redemptive value for the disposable song material and contributing to an overall grating listening experience. Verdict: a definite station-changer.
Written by Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, and Hillary Lindsey
The conflict of whether or not to reconnect with an ex-lover can be the perfect fodder for a great country song. Just ask Lee Ann Womack.
Musgraves’ narrator faces such a choice on her stellar new single “Keep it to Yourself,” but in this instance she sticks with her better judgment. Should her ex find those old feelings returning, she offers the advice found in the song’s title: “Keep it to yourself.” The hook is simple and direct, yet disarmingly effective.
Much has already been written about Kacey Musgraves’ gifts as a lyricist, and while such are definitely evident on “Keep it to Yourself,” the song is particularly noteworthy as a display of her power over a melody. The low, somber notes convey a weary, angst-ridden feeling in the opening verse before rising to the gentle plea of the chorus.
Even more impressive is the way the melody and performance manage to convey the intangible, allowing the listener read between the lyrics. The pleading tone in Musgraves voice suggests that she is begging her ex not to call her perhaps because she’s afraid that she just might not be able to muster the strength to say no the next time.
“Keep it to Yourself” is fresh in its approach, yet classic in theme and delivery. It comes across as moving and sincere, but not cloying or contrived. The gentle arrangement and strains of steel guitar enhance the story without interrupting it, while Musgraves’ vocal conveys deep vulnerability without veering into melodrama.
“Keep it to Yourself” is top-notch country storytelling through and through – an understated gem of a performance that represents much of what we wish mainstream country music could still be in 2014.
Written by Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Luke Laird