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What Do the 2014 CMA Awards Nominations Mean for Country Music?

Miranda Lambert Kacey Musgraves Brandy Clark
Rick Diamond / Ethan Miller / Terry Wyatt, Getty Images

The 2014 CMA Awards nominations were announced this week, and they may be the harbinger of changes coming to country music.

The disparity between men and women in the marketplace has been the subject of much discussion and debate in the last year. Male artists, and particularly “bro-country,” have dominated the genre commercially, while women have released some of the most impactful music over the last several years but have struggled to make any impact at radio, with only a tiny handful of exceptions.

"This year’s nominations encompass a wide variety of artists and lean heavily toward more substantial fare."

But one of country’s leading female acts dominated this year’s nominations, while one of the genre’s biggest male stars was snubbed despite an enormous year commercially. Miranda Lambert earned an astonishing nine nominations, including the key categories of Single, Song, Album and Entertainer of the Year, while Jason Aldean was shut out of the nominations altogether, despite having performed in some of the biggest stadiums in the U.S. in the past year — which would normally put him in line for Entertainer of the Year.

Though many fans complain that the CMAs have become a thinly veiled popularity contest, this year’s nominations encompass a wide variety of artists and lean heavily toward more substantial fare.

It’s impossible to deny the artistry of albums like Lambert’s ‘Platinum,’ Dierks Bentley‘s ‘Riser,’ Eric Church‘s ‘The Outsiders’ or Keith Urban‘s ‘Fuse,’ all of which mark major steps forward for each of them, while Luke Bryan‘s ‘Crash My Party’ is a perfectly produced example of what’s driving the marketplace right now, mixed in with some weightier material like ‘Drink a Beer.’

Similarly, this year’s nominees for Song of the Year are undeniably among the best-written and most substantial songs to emerge from the mainstream country music genre this year. Lambert’s ‘Automatic’ takes a wistful look back at an innocent time that’s now gone forever, while Church’s ‘Give Me Back My Hometown’ paints such a precise picture of lamenting a lost love that it becomes universal.

It’s difficult to write anything remotely unique in a love song, but Lee Brice found a way to do exactly that with ‘I Don’t Dance,’ another of this year’s Song of the Year contenders — which, interestingly, features bro-country king Dallas Davidson as one of its co-writers. And Bentley’s ‘I Hold On’ is almost as much of a mission statement as it is a song.

But as great as all of those songs are, the truly groundbreaking nomination in this year’s Song of the Year category is Kacey Musgraves‘ ‘Follow Your Arrow.’ The third single from her Grammy-winning major label debut, ‘Same Trailer Different Park,’ the song — which she co-wrote with Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally — was far too challenging to gain the wide acceptance at country radio it needed to become a major chart hit, but the public embraced the song anyway, to such an extent that it was recently certified gold after selling more than 500,000 units.

This is the same song that was deemed so controversial that Musgraves’ performance of it was censored at last year’s CMA Awards, where the line “If the straight and narrow gets a little too straight, roll up a joint — or don’t” was obscured to viewers at home.

"While ‘Follow Your Arrow’ didn’t particularly pay off at radio, its nomination for both Song of the Year and Music Video of the Year in the conservative, sometimes staid country music genre is practically an act of revolution."

“Well, I guess for some reason, people feel the need to censor that word, yet they decide to leave the word ‘crack’ in there,” she commented afterward. “I’m not really sure why. Honestly, to me, ‘Follow Your Arrow’ is just a really positive anthem, encouraging people of all kinds to do whatever makes them happy across the board. I was really happy to be up there with my band and being a part of this.”

With its casual, no-big-deal acceptance of both marijuana use and same-sex relationships, the track is one of the most challenging to play at country radio in many years. Its choice as a single was a bold one from both Musgraves and Mercury Nashville.

“Well, you know, with great risk comes great reward,” co-writer Clark told The Boot. “I mean, I’m thrilled, of course; I’m a writer on that song, so for selfish reasons I’m thrilled. But then I’m just thrilled that her label and her would take a chance like that. And I think no matter what, that’s a win. I think people love that song, and I’m sure there will be a lot of stations that won’t play it, but there will also be stations that will, and it moves the needle.”

While the song didn’t particularly pay off at radio, its nomination for both Song of the Year and Music Video of the Year in the conservative, sometimes staid country music genre is practically an act of revolution.

Clark herself is nominated for New Artist of the Year — a category Musgraves took home last year. Clark, who has scored major successes as a songwriter that include Lambert’s ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ as well as the Band Perry‘s ‘Better Dig Two,’ released her debut album, ’12 Stories,’ in October of 2013, scoring one of the most critically acclaimed projects of the year.

But she’s signed to a smaller label that simply does not have the financial resources to compete at country radio, and as a result, most listeners who have heard Clark’s subtly nuanced, extraordinarily well-crafted songs have heard them via alternative outlets like NPR or satellite radio. Her inclusion in the nominations is just another signal that this year’s awards are more about substance and less about popularity.

As a side note to Clark’s nomination, should she win, she would become the first openly gay performer ever to win a CMA, though it’s a fact she doesn’t particularly focus on.

“I don’t write songs for straight people or gay people or black people or white people,” she tells the Washington Post. “I write songs for people. I want them to put themselves in these songs. I would feel that way if I was straight.”

Previous generations of country stars are also better represented in this year’s nominations than some recent years. In addition to George Strait‘s nomination for Entertainer of the Year — which he won last year — Vince Gill‘s ‘Bakersfield’ album, which he recorded with steel guitarist Paul Franklin, is nominated for Musical Event of the Year, as is ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends,’ which reunited Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. Martina McBride is also nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year, a category she last won in 2004.

"It’s hard not to think that this year’s slate of nominees is more inclusive of all aspects of the industry."

It’s also worth noting that females dominate the Music Video of the Year category as well, while what is missing almost completely from the CMA nominations this year is bro-country and hick-hop. Though the CMA Awards generally focus on more substance than straight popular fare, this year it just feels different, more deliberate somehow.

Maybe that’s because bro-country and hick-hop have dominated radio so thoroughly for so long now, and people are just ready for a change. Maybe the tailgate-in-the-moonlight truck song bubble really is about to burst, and this is just another sign. Maybe the CMA voters did, in fact, intend this year’s nominations as a silent rebuke to those trends. Whatever the case, it’s hard not to think that this year’s slate of nominees is more inclusive of all aspects of the industry.

We can only hope that points the way to more balance at country radio between men and women, as well as a bigger place for more substantial work. After all, while country music has always had a place for drinking songs and partying songs, it’s always had a place for songs like ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ ‘Go Rest High on That Mountain’ and ‘The Dance,’ too.

What do you think about this year’s CMA Awards nominations? Sound off in the comments section below!

NEXT: Why Are There So Few Women at Country Radio?

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