Whatever you think about country music, there’s no disputing it has taken its fair share of heat. But as much as we criticize, we only do it because we love it, and just don’t like seeing country music in its current state. Fortunately, the newly announced 2015 Country Music Association award nominees signal a trend that has been building for a long time: Country music wants to get better, to be taken seriously, and the powers that be are finally doing something to prove they’re ready to help it grow.
The Female Vocalist of the Year field is particularly indicative of this sudden interest in recognizing quality artists for their talent. North Texas natives Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves will duke it out with vocal heavyweight Lee Ann Womack, newcomer Kelsea Ballerini and pop-country princess Carrie Underwood for the award this year. The Academy’s task certainly isn’t enviable, but the strength of this category bolsters what critics have been saying for quite some time — women are making the best music in the genre.
Nominees in the Best Music Video category are exclusively female, although women are only sprinkled throughout the other gender-neutral categories. It will still take work to get the “tomatoes” of this genre the recognition they deserve, but this year’s CMA Awards have the potential to put statues in the hands of more women than the past few years put together.
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In contrast, the Male Vocalist of the Year category featured only one real surprise — the nomination of Chris Stapleton alongside mainstream favorites Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley and Eric Church. Despite positive reviews of his debut album Traveller and occasional radio airplay, Stapleton is decidedly an outsider in this category. Should he win — and that is a real long shot — it would be the strongest indicator thus far that country music is ready for a change.
Of course, Texas talent is also on display (Lambert, Musgraves, half of Maddie & Tae) in the Nashville-centric awards, even if Texas country artists were excluded from nearly all of the categories last year. Perhaps next year we’ll see recognition for Texas artists — maybe a nod for Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen’s collaboration, Hold My Beer? We guess 2015 just wasn’t the year for Texas country artists to get mainstream recognition. We’ll get 'em next year.
Overall, this year’s CMA Awards should prove to be full of interesting performances — hopefully more Maddie & Tae, less Sam Hunt — and some really, really tight races in several categories. Most encouraging, though, it looks as if industry types are finally seeing the benefit in acknowledging outsiders, newcomers and mainstream types alike. That can only mean really good things for country music.