The nominations for the 2018 CMA Awards were unveiled Tuesday morning and the list of contenders is as unsurprising as a Luke Bryan song going to Number One: men ruled, radio exerted its omnipresent influence and good luck breaking through if your record label doesn’t operate within the traditional Music Row sphere. There were some moments of light — Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton and Dierks Bentley’s albums were all welcome and deserving inclusions, as were Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl” and anything related to the Brothers Osborne — but a lot of disappointments, too. We break down what we learned from studying this year’s nominees.
Want a nomination? Better have a hit. Nowhere is the power of country radio more apparent than in this particular group of contenders, from the top down. Just take a look at Song of the Year, a category that is supposed to be more about lyrical content than chart success or production. Instead, it’s a group of tracks that all have enjoyed success at country radio, somehow including Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” for the second year in a row. How about “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” by Ashley McBryde? Or “Space Cowboy” by Kacey Musgraves”? (Oh right, they weren’t hits.) And even though it’s women who suffer discrimination when it comes to radio rotation, there’s proof here that even deserving men are losing out. Glance at the Male Vocalist of the Year field and ask where is Brent Cobb, Charlie Worsham or Kip Moore? It’s no surprise that on the same day the CMA announces these awards, they also unveil the broadcast nominees — a special set of awards for radio alone.
“New Artist” Is a Relative Term
The CMA Awards’ most disappointing category has been, year after year, New Artist. Like the Grammy Awards recognizing Bon Iver or Lil Uzi Vert, it should be a chance to celebrate those who haven’t yet had a Number One party in their honor. But this category includes three repeat names from last year’s race: Luke Combs, Brett Young and Lauren Alaina. All are riding high, but it’d be refreshing to see five new names this year. Midland and Chris Janson (now an Opry member and feeling more like a veteran than a newbie after 10 years in town) are good starts, but Ashley McBryde and Carly Pearce would have also been excellent inclusions, along with Margo Price, Lindsay Ell, Kane Brown and Devin Dawson. It’s a shame this pool is so narrow.
Voters Still Love Chris Stapleton (and Kacey Musgraves)
Stapleton reigns as this year’s most nominated (he scored five), proving that voters have a sweet spot for his enormous talent. Thankfully they still have one for Kacey Musgraves too, the rare artist to break through without radio play. If her fantastic Golden Hour was left out of contention from Album of the Year, we would have staged a coup.
No Major Label? No Nomination.
Just like radio success seems to be a key predictor of who will be nominated for a CMA award, so is what record label an artist calls home — none of the performers this year belong to anything other than a major label or a Music Row player that operates in a similar fashion (like Black River, home to Kelsea Ballerini). Nashville’s insular nature is on full display here, which means no indie nominee can sneak in, like Jason Isbell did last year.
Country Still Has a Serious Diversity Problem
Let’s start with the obvious: women are sorely lacking representation across all areas of this year’s nominations. No women Entertainers. No nominated Songs or Singles by solo women. Airplay rules yet again, and female artists (aside from a few, even including crossovers like Bebe Rexha) just aren’t getting spins. The awards have an ageist streak this year as well: country elders like Willie Nelson and John Prine (who both released superlative albums in April) are absent, as is Shania Twain, who has been wowing audiences on her Shania Now Tour and released an album of new material, to boot. Beyond that, performers of color are completely absent. Kane Brown enjoyed two of the year’s biggest hits with “Heaven” and “What Ifs,” but is still looking to earn his first nomination.