2023 CMA Awards: Country Universe Dream Ballot

The CMAs will announce their 2023 nominees later this week. As ever, we’ve looked at their “second ballot” of nominees as featured on their annual Nominees Showcase and polled the CU crew to come up with our ideal slate of nominees.

Will these align with CMA voters? Of course not. They never do, and they definitely won’t this year, which will surely be dominated by Morgan Wallen and Megan Moroney.

But there’s plenty of wheat among this year’s chaff:

Entertainer of the Year

Kane Brown

Luke Combs

Chris Stapleton

Carrie Underwood

The full second ballot is notable for the fact that it can never, evidently, include more than two women. This year, Miranda Lambert’s perennial spot was taken by the genre’s current It Girl, Lainey Wilson.

Beyond that, the long-list included few surprises. A more adventurous organization would have included Zach Bryan, Brandi Carlile, Allison Russell, and Billy Strings in the mix for their impactful contributions to the country music space over the past year.

Among the usual suspects, we’d go to bat for only four contenders, with contemporary powerhouses Brown and Combs going up against ACM EotY winner Stapleton and Underwood, who should’ve won this award at least twice during her peak era.


Single of the Year

“Fast Car,” Luke Combs

“Need a Favor,” Jelly Roll

“She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” Cole Swindell

“Thank God,” Kane Brown featuring Katelyn Brown

“What He Didn’t Do,” Carly Pearce featuring Ashley McBryde

The long-list, despite a glut of Morgan Wallen (and Morgan Wallen knock-off) hits, showcased a healthier contemporary country mainstream than we’ve seen in many years, though the CMAs’ take on that improved health outcome includes few artists who aren’t white men and nothing that wasn’t a radio hit. 

That leaves “Bonfire at Tina’s” and “Brenda Put Your Bra On” on the sidelines, though Ashley McBryde’s fantastic collaboration with Carly Pearce still made the cut, even though it feels like it came out seventeen years ago. So, too, does Cole Swindell’s career-best / only good single to date.

Among more recent hits, Jelly Roll’s latest and Luke Combs’ discourse-inspiring cover of “Fast Car” are obvious standouts, alongside Kane Brown’s crossover hit duet with his wife, Katelyn Brown.

While we’d be more excited by a list that included Lilli Lewis’ “Creep,” Jessye DeSilva’s “Proud and Lonely,” and Brown’s “Whiskey Sour,” this isn’t a bad lot.


Album of the Year

Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville, Ashley McBryde

Bell Bottom Country, Lainey Wilson

Different Man, Kane Brown

Rolling Up the Welcome Mat, Kelsea Ballerini

Whitsitt Chapel, Jelly Roll

We’re in lockstep on the five albums we’d vote for from a long-list that isn’t top-to-bottom terrible but still prioritized absurdly overpraised albums by Megan Moroney and Chase Rice.

Still, it’s hard to be too salty when two of our own Top 10 Albums of 2022– Brown’s set and Lindeville– are in the running for the CMAs. Ballerini’s post-divorce EP would be the first time we’d actually include her on our ideal ballots, where she’d join the pretty-good albums by Wilson and Jelly Roll that are a couple of standard deviations above the Music Row mean.

In an ideal world, CMA voters would be considering Tami Neilson’s landmark KINGMAKER, Adeem the Artist’s White Trash Revelry, Jake Blount’s The New Faith, and recent standouts by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Jessye DeSilva, Tanya Tucker, and Rhiannon Giddens.


Song of the Year

“Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman (Luke Combs)

“Need a Favor,” Jason DeFord, Joe Ragosta, Rob Ragosta, and Austin Nivarel (Jelly Roll)

“Penthouse,” Kelsea Ballerini and Alysa Vanderheym (Kelsea Ballerini)

“Thank God,” Christian Davis Stalnecker, Kyle Fishman, Jason Free, Josh Hoge, and Jared Mullins (Kane Brown f Katelyn Brown)

“We Don’t Fight Anymore,” Pete Good, Shane McAnally, and Carly Pearce (Carly Pearce f Chris Stapleton)

The big question around the forthcoming nominee announcements is whether or not the CMAs will actually nominate Tracy Chapman for “Fast Car.” There’s frequent precedent for nominating covers in this category, and it would be frankly indefensible for the CMAs to shun Chapman’s iconic song. It’s the best-written song on the long-list, and it isn’t even close.

We’d be on board with these other four nominations, but get your think pieces ready for Thursday’s official announcements. Notably missing are some of the year’s finest songs that weren’t hits at country radio: Jessye DeSilva’s “Proud and Lonely,” Roberta Lea’s “Too Much of a Woman,” Ashley McBryde’s “Light On In the Kitchen,” and Tyler Childers’ “In Your Love.”


Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelsea Ballerini

Ashley McBryde

Maren Morris

Carly Pearce

Lainey Wilson

CMA voters threw a bone to Mickey Guyton by including her on the long-list, but Guyton is the sole WOC they considered, in favor of a whole lot of mediocre to outright awful blonde women. There are a good twenty WOC making country music right now who are deserving of the starmaking apparatus Music Row has assembled around the tone-deaf Megan Moroney, but none of those WOC are rumored to be dating cash-cow Morgan Wallen, so here we are.

All of that is to say that Rhiannon Giddens, Miko Marks, Roberta Lea, and Lilli Lewis aren’t here, and neither are Tami Neilson, Mya Byrne, or Sunny Sweeney. Even genre legends like Wynonna and Tanya Tucker who’ve had very prominent impacts over the last year are absent.

Among who’s left, McBryde’s the obvious class of the field, though Ballerini and Morris are also doing some of their best work of late, despite their controversial status in the industry. Pearce and Wilson remain reliable in releasing solid mainstream fare, too. 


Male Vocalist of the Year

Kane Brown

Luke Combs

Jelly Roll

Chris Stapleton

It’s always odd that Darius Rucker never manages to pull enough support to make the second ballot for the CMAs. With Jimmie Allen trying to turn his horrifying rape allegations into stand-up comedy fodder– no, really– Kane Brown is the only non-white artist to make the long-list this year.

Charley Crockett, Gabe Lee, Willie Jones, Jake Blount, and Tae Lewis are just a few of the other acts whose inclusion could make for a better look at the year’s most compelling male vocalists, as could Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, Ian Noe, and Billy Strings.

With all of those artists out of consideration, we’re unanimous in our support here for Brown, Combs, Stapleton, and, uh, Roll.


Vocal Duo/Group of the Year

Brothers Osborne

Chapel Hart

The Chicks

Maddie & Tae


The War & Treaty

CTRL+C then CTRL+V from the last however many years we’ve been doing this: There’s literally no reason not to combine these two categories.

This year, a combined list could reflect the actual breadth of country music in a way that the rest of the ballot simply doesn’t. These six artists capture the genre’s diversity both within and adjacent to the mainstream, and that’s even with acts like Turnpike Troubadours, The Kentucky Gentlemen, and The Vandoliers not making the CMAs’ ballot.


Vocal Event of the Year

“High Note,” Dierks Bentley featuring Billy Strings

“Same Here,” Brad Paisley featuring President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

“She Had Me at Heads Carolina (Remix),” Cole Swindell featuring Jo Dee Messina

“Thank God,” Kane Brown featuring Katelyn Brown

“We Don’t Fight Anymore,” Carly Pearce featuring Chris Stapleton

“You’re Drunk, Go Home,” Kelsea Ballerini featuring Kelly Clarkson and Carly Pearce

The idea of John Rich losing his shit over the CMAs’ nominating Ukrainian President Zelenskyy for an award just warms my heart. I don’t think they’ll actually do that, mind you, since Paisley’s fortunes have long since cooled off. But seeing professional grifter Rich have a meltdown might actually get me to log back into our Ex-Twitter account.

Beyond that, there are some interesting contenders here, including a Kip Moore and Morgan Wade collaboration that just missed our cut. Instead, we had to take the chance to include Billy Strings and Kelly Clarkson, alongside the strong radio hits from the Browns and Pearce and Stapleton. Why the remix featuring Messina didn’t land in the Single of The Year line-ups at either the ACMs or CMAs is a mystery, but we appreciate seeing one of the women of 90s country get some recognition.


Music Video of the Year

““If You Go Down, I’m Goin’ Down Too,” Kelsea Ballerini

“Light on in the Kitchen,” Ashley McBryde

“Thank God,” Kane Brown featuring Katelyn Brown

“Wait in the Truck,” HARDY featuring Lainey Wilson

“What He Didn’t Do,” Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde

A category that we generally don’t have much investment in, this would at least give McBryde two separate nominations… Though the videos for both “Bonfire at Tina’s” and “Brenda Put Your Bra On” should have been long-listed and are better than any of the actual contenders. 


New Artist


Zach Bryan

Mickey Guyton

Jelly Roll

Hailey Whitters

This category has a dire long-list that prioritized some gapingly untalented Morgan Wallen clones over any of the genre’s most compelling new acts. That Chapel Hart, for instance, made the short-list for Vocal Group but not for New Artist speaks volumes about the CMA voter base’s mindset. So we’ll vote for both BRELAND and Guyton on principle and on artistic merit, and we’ll fill out the category with Bryan, Jelly Roll, and Whitters. But we’re far more bullish on the future of the genre than what the CMA long-list reflects.


  1. …nightmares are dremas too. megan moroney’s “tennessee orange” is hands down the overall best and most charming mainstream country song and single by quite some margin and her debut album is more than a fine effort. fair enough, lainey wilson’s “water melon moonshine” and jordan davis’ “next thing you know” managed to grow on me quite a bit since spring. pretty sure bets in the “single” category in my book.

    passing over wallen here in the “entertainer” categorie is just absurd. he’s even making headlines in this week’s “the economist” magazine. one can dislike him or his music, which is written by arguably the hottest bunch of songwriting talent of nashville (yet still bores me quite a bit mostly), but facts are facts: this guy has a huge impact currently, which just cannot be overlooked – not even in your wildest dreams, nor in a dreamy parallel country universe. when something doesn’t add up – chances are that it’s incorrect.

    • Jonathan was pretty clear in the introduction that these are our personal picks and we fully expect that Wallen will dominate the nominations this week.

      Speaking for myself: Morgan Wallen’s music is just plain terrible to my ears, and has been since day one.

      I don’t care how many records he sells or how many think pieces are written about him. He wouldn’t be my pick for Entertainer of the Year any more than Billy Ray Cyrus would’ve been in 1992 when he spent most of the year on top of the Billboard 200, or Florida Georgia Line would’ve been when “Cruise” spent a year on top of the country singles chart.

      And Billy Ray Cyrus and Florida Georgia Line were just embarrassing on their records. They didn’t conduct themselves as loathsomely as Wallen has over the last few years.

      • What Kevin said: For as many years as we’ve done an iteration of this post, the intent is that it’s a reflection of who we would actually vote for ourselves, based on the CMAs’ “second round” ballots. The Economist is welcome to post something similar if they feel so moved.

        My personal view of who I’d vote for in the Entertainer Of The Year category is based on whether or not that act had what I believe to be a favorable impact on the country music space. As someone who’s been on the record as disliking Wallen’s music from the release of his very first single– and certainly have nothing positive to say about the way he’s conducted himself over the last three years as a public figure representing the country genre– I wouldn’t even give him a passing consideration.

        His popularity is its own reward. Taco Bell slings more tacos than anyone else; doesn’t make it fine Mexican cuisine.

        As for Moroney, there are plenty of people who’ve bought into her. Personally, I’m not at all charmed by someone who has had literal millions of dollars worth of Music Row money thrown at them yet, for all of the ProTools in Nashville, is still off-pitch on their actual record. Maybe in 15 years she’ll have done what Taylor Swift did and put in the work to improve her singing. Until then, she wouldn’t have made it out of the first round auditions of the Simon Cowell-era American Idol. But I fully expect her to have a slew of actual CMA nominations come Thursday morning because that’s how this all actually works.

        “Watermelon Moonshine” is terrific. Wasn’t on the long-list ballot to my recollection, which makes sense given that Wilson had plenty of other tracks in the mix and that it’s still climbing at radio. I’d expect it to figure into the ACMs come next Spring and, depending on where Wilson is on her next album cycle, the 2024 CMAs.

        • Agree with your comments on Megan and so sad when the support is thrown behind an artist like that instead of the incredible talents like Caitlin and Brandy Clark.

  2. Was Caitlin Smith on the first or second ballot for anything? I would love to see the industry embrace her more. She is no less country than Carrie and a far better vocalist and writer than most who get radio play today.

    • The full ballots have been taken down already, but I don’t recall Smith being on any of the long-lists this year. Had she been included, I’d for sure have had her as one of my picks for Female Vocalist, plus Single and Song for “High.”

  3. What He Didn’t Do is a solo Carly Pearce song. Never Wanted To Be That Girl is the Ashley McBryde collab and it won Musical Event last year.

  4. As much as I love Maren, I disagree that she should be in consideration for female vocalist. Her album did average at best, her singles were also average and she’s been quiet for a while now.

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