CMA’s 2005: State of the Country
he Country Music Association will hold their 39th awards show on November 15th. Hilariously, they’ve decided to decamp from Nashville and move the awards to New York City this year, “as a platform to reach a broader consumer base, placing Country Music [sic] in the heart of the media and marketing capital of the world,” according to a CMA press release. What’s so hilarious about that? Well, there’s no country radio station in all of NYC, for starters. But apart from the misguidedness of holding the CMAs at Madison Square Garden—and sops to the locals such as Billy Joel presenting Entertainer of the Year with Shania Twain, and Elton John duetting with Dolly Parton—what can the CMAs tell us about the state of country music in 2005? The nominees, at least, can tell us plenty.
Starting at the top, the CMAs’ biggest prize has always been the Entertainer of the Year trophy. It’s an odd one, in that it’s often gone to artists who don’t win—and sometimes aren’t even nominated for—any other awards, such as the aforementioned Twain, whose one and only CMA award is for Entertainer. (She’s received 10 nominations in all, her nod for Musical Event this year [for her deliriously catchy Billy Currington duet “Party for Two”] her first since her ’99 victory.) In 1996, ’97, and ’99, Garth Brooks’ only CMA nomination each year was for Entertainer (which he won in ’97, the third of his record-setting four wins in this category). The award tends to go to the biggest seller nominated, and in the past has sometimes been given to the artist with the most crossover success (inexplicably, however, Kenny Rogers never won it, nor has Faith Hill; the CMAs have an awkward relationship at best with crossover sensations). In recent years, however, the pendulum has swung back towards the biggest stars strictly within the genre, crossover (seemingly) be damned. The last 5 Entertainers of the Year, from 2000-2004, are Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson (twice), and Kenny Chesney—and yes, all of them sell loads of albums to more than just country fans, but none of them has had a single cross over to the pop charts (the closest being McGraw’s limited success in the Adult Contemporary format).
This year, reigning king of the mountain Chesney goes up again against Jackson and Toby Keith (who’s never won the big one; this is his fourth consecutive nod in this category), along with country two biggest new guns (“new” is a relative term), Brad Paisley (the traditionalists’ fave) and Keith Urban (most likely to cross over, and reportedly dating Nicole Kidman doesn’t hurt). The sexy pick is clearly Urban, who’s on the cusp of exploding into superstardom, much like Chesney did four years ago. But it took Chesney three tries to win this one, and Urban’s got time. Chesney also had last year’s second-biggest tour in terms of tickets sold (only Prince did more), and has a seemingly endlessly string of #1 singles—hell, he even sold platinum on a largely acoustic album with little promotion and no singles (this year’s Songs From A Blue Chair). Paisley’s not quite big enough yet, Jackson’s the old reliable but had (for him) a relatively uneventful year, and Toby Keith will likely never win this at this point. Count on Chesney to make it two in a row.
In most of the other major categories, two names pop up the most: Paisley and Lee Ann Womack. Both are up for Single, Song (though Womack’s song was written by Odie Blackmon), Music Video, and Musical Event (Womack, twice) of the Year, with Womack also scoring an Album nod (she’s also nommed for Female Vocalist, with Paisley similarly nominated in his distaff category); that’s (including Paisley’s Entertainer nod) 6 nominations apiece. While Paisley’s nods, mostly for his entertaining top 5 hit “Alcohol,” are fairly unsurprising, Womack’s aren’t. She bounced back this year from the disaster of 2002’s would-be-crossover nonhit Something Worth Leaving Behind with the stunning There’s More Where That Came From, a purposefully retro-sounding set which harkens to the genre’s countrypolitan glory days of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Critics swooned, but commercially it’s only done middling business—only one single (leader “I May Hate Myself in the Morning”) has made the top 20 thus far, and the album’s yet to go gold (500,000 copies sold in the U.S.). Clearly, however, the trad army in Nashville went for it in a major way.
As well they should, frankly. For Single of the Year, Paisley and Womack’s competition is Toby Keith’s cleverly amusing “As Good As I Once Was,” Sugarland’s lame debut single “Baby Girl,” and Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road,” ick (they’re like Journey crossed with Air Supply, gone country). Womack’s “Hate Myself” is clearly the standout here, but the winner’s more likely to be Paisley or Keith, as country loves a good sense of humor.
Things are trickier to prognosticate in Album of the Year, where Womack is nommed alongside Urban’s Be Here, Rascal Flatts’ Feels Like Today, McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying, and George Strait’s Somewhere Down In Texas. Strait seemingly gets nominated for this award any time he releases an album—this is his astounding 14th nomination for Album, a prize he’s won three times; don’t expect him to take it home this year considering his competition and the fact that this isn’t one of Strait’s stronger efforts. McGraw’s up for this for a fifth time (he’s won twice) for an album whose title track (perhaps you’ve heard of it) won Single and Song honors last year, which is enough reward for this album. Rascal Flatts could, sadly, take it if voters go with commercial success—after more than a year, Today is still in the top 5 of Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, but no one sees them as heavy hitters artistically speaking. That leaves Womack and Urban, both of who are threats to win. The traditionalists’ brigade likes to rear its head in this category (both Johnny Cash and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack have won this within the past four years), which favors Womack, but did she sell too little to win? Urban’s got the cred, the hits (he’s currently sitting atop the Country Singles chart with “Better Life”), and he’s the reigning Male Vocalist of the Year. Call it for him by a nose while I wish for another Womack win.
Song of the Year (a songwriting prize) inexplicably includes two songs that were nominated for awards in other categories last year, Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” and “Whiskey Lullaby,” which won two trophies for Paisley and Alison Krauss (Vocal Event and Music Video). Also up for it are “Alcohol,” “As Good,” “Broken Road,” and “Hate Myself,” and I have absolutely no idea who’ll take this. As much as I love Womack’s single, however, my vote would go to “Lullaby,” a heartbreaker of a song if ever there was.
Musical Event, formerly Vocal Event of the Year, is a crapshoot, with three of the five nominees not even having been released as singles: “Good News, Bad News” by Strait and Womack, “I’ll Never Be Free” from Willie Nelson and Womack, and Paisley’s duet with Sara Evans, “New Again.” Shania Twain and Billy Currington’s “Party for Two” got a surprising nod here, along with the lovely “Trip Around the Sun” by Jimmy Buffet and Martina McBride. Nelson and Womack won this very category in 2002 for “Mendocino Country Line,” so on name only, they could win again, though they’ll split the Texas vote with Womack’s pairing with Strait. No one’s ever heard the Paisley/Evans combo, and Shania Twain has no chance in hell, which should clear the field for Buffet and McBride.
Toby Keith is on his fifth nod for Video of the Year, and videos are the sector of country more than any other that he most truly dominates; it’s more than a little odd he’s never taken this prize. “As Good” should deservedly triumph over “Alcohol,” Urban’s “Days Go By,” “Hate Myself,” and Gretchen Wilson’s technologically-good-but-slightly-creepy Opry-of-old fest for “When I Think About Cheatin’.” Keith’s left out of the running for Male Vocalist, where the competitors are Chesney (0 wins), Jackson (2), Paisley (0), Strait (5), and Urban (reigning). There’s no reason to think Urban won’t hold on to his title here, considering the success he’s had over the past year, though Paisley will give him a challenge. Female Vocalist this year features Evans (0 wins), Krauss (1, a decade ago), Wilson (her first nomination in this category), and comeback kid Womack (who won in 2001). Oh, and a contender named Martina McBride, who’s got a record four of these trophies with her name engraved on ‘em, including the last three in a row. It’d be nice to see Womack win again, but McBride, even with a quiet year, is bolstered by the recent release of her own everything-old-is-new-again album, the fine Timeless (which should contend for multiple CMA Awards next year), and you don’t bet against a horse as winning as she is.
Dobro master Jerry Douglas will win Musician of the Year again—I mean, c’mon, it’s Alison Krauss + Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas—and the Horizon Award, a/k/a best new artist, is next to impossible to call, what with Dierks Bentley hitting new heights with his sophomore effort (and riding the current success of the smoldering single “Come A Little Closer”), Big & Rich hugely popular even without big-time radio support, and Sugarland clearly the rookies of 2005 in the strictest sense (artists can be nommed for this award for, I believe, up to 3 years in a row, and both Bentley and Big & Rich are up for a second time) (sorry, Miranda Lambert and Julie Roberts [also on her second nod here], but enjoy the show!). I’ll guess that Big & Rich claim it this year, but a Bentley win wouldn’t surprise.
This year’s big nomination counts for Paisley and Womack should give anyone hope for the future of country music, as they’re both traditionalists who still know how to craft popular (but not pop) country records. The genre needs Toby Keith much more than they’re willing to reward him for (1 win in 27 nominations!), and the same goes for Chesney, regardless-of-slash-because-of his matinee idol status (2 for 14). Sure, I could quibble with some of this year’s nominations (such as for the execrable Rascal Flatts, as poor as pop-country gets), but overall, I can’t complain too much, so I won’t. I’ll instead watch the CMAs, enjoy the performances (there are generally at least 25 crammed into the show’s three hours), cheer for my favorites, and get a special twinge when they induct this year’s Country Music Hall of Fame honorees (pre-WWII Opry star DeFord Bailey, Glen Campbell, and Alabama, all more than deserving). Country music’s alive and very well in 2005, so let’s celebrate.