As music snobs well know, music awards shows generally don’t do the best at showcasing a genre’s most promising talent. If anything, they’re prone to rewarding the same boring, mainstream pap that makes record executives millions of dollars every single year. This year’s CMA Awards, though, looked particularly promising. Among the usual mainstream faves, plenty of new, subversive faces made their way into the Country Music Association’s nominees for its 49th annual awards show.
When those nominees were announced, it felt like a beacon of hope that the mainstream powers-that-be were finally starting to recognize that better music could also be commercially successful, but the proof would come when the “right” artists took home the trophies. If you watched last night’s broadcast of the CMA Awards, you couldn’t help but feel like, in most cases, they did. And that’s pretty damn exciting.
Among these new faces were artists who have seen some real crossover success, particularly in Americana. Chris Stapleton, nominated for Vocalist of the Year, Best New Artist and Album of the Year, won all three, and that right there is one hell of a coup. In those three categories, Stapleton stood against established acts (Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, Kacey Musgraves) and newcomers (Kelsea Ballerini, Sam Hunt, Maddie & Tae), all of whom have seen a great deal more mainstream success, and he still came out on top.
Beyond that, beating Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan and Eric Church in the Male Vocalist of the Year category is all but a gift from the country music gods. Frankly, there isn’t a better way to predict that country music is about to get good — perhaps really good! — in the coming years. It also probably doesn’t hurt that Stapleton delivered a killer duet with Justin Timberlake, in the perfect combination of dreamy-meets-freakishly-talented.
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The Best New Artist award signifies a sort of changing of the guard, a recognition of the artists who will shape the future of the genre, and Stapleton was the perfect choice. He’s got more mainstream appeal than more esoteric artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, and just so happens to make some damn fine country music. It may take some time for Stapleton’s quiet, unassuming persona to dethrone the bros, but a reckoning is coming.
Perhaps even more impressive, Little Big Town, who aren't exactly known for stirring the pot with their radio-friendly tunes, took home both Song of the Year and Single of the Year, somewhat surprising considering the mini-controversy surrounding the song, which some fans idiotically believed contained (gasp!) homosexual undertones, could have been damaging. In a genre where maintaining the status quo has been so long rewarded, seeing someone get praise for daring to shake it up — consequences be damned — is deeply refreshing.
Not everything was a victory, though, but that was to be expected. Florida-Georgia Line somehow beat out Maddie & Tae for Best Vocal Duo, which is a real travesty. Fortunately, Maddie & Tae did take home Video of the Year, which may actually be more exciting. The video for “Girl in a Country Song” took no prisoners in skewering the absurdity of bro-country, and there was some concern that the stodgy establishment wouldn’t reward a song that so brilliantly challenges its biggest moneymaker.
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It also happened to be a pretty good year for those pesky “tomatoes,” aka the female artists of the genre who supposedly don’t make country radio any money. Taking home Vocal Group of the Year, Little Big Town was among three female-fronted acts nominated, including Lady Antebellum and the Band Perry. The all-woman songwriting team that penned the act’s “Girl Crush” took home song of the year.
East Texas’ own Miranda Lambert continued her seemingly unbeatable winning streak, taking home Female Vocalist of the Year. The only real disappointment is that she didn’t beat out Luke Bryan for Entertainer of the Year, a category he was pretty much always going to win since he sells out venues and tons of records, even if he doesn't deserve to.
With a few missteps, it would appear that the country music establishment has finally started to listen to those grumbling fans who want more than trucks and girls and cutoff jeans. In recent years, there hasn’t been anything as exciting as Stapleton’s sweep, and that has much more meaning than Florida-Georgia Line taking home just one trophy, especially when you consider how many they’ve taken home in past years.
With all of the hope that has been building since 2013, with the release of albums from Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson and Justin Townes Earle and Kacey Musgraves, last night’s CMA Awards felt like a real victory for those of us who have been begging for the establishment to recognize the actually good country music in the genre. We’ll take those few Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan lumps — at least for a while longer — if this trend continues.