The Vocal Duo Dilemma: They Also Serve Who Also Run

Can someone please explain why the Country Music Association keeps passing over Homer & Jethro for its Vocal Duo of the Year award? Oh, sure, sticklers will point out that this deserving pair has not had a record on the charts since 1964 or that both its members are, in a clinical sense, dead. And that’s true. But why should the CMA hold them to a higher standard than it sets for other contenders?

By its insistence on always having five finalists in the vocal duo category, the CMA has often had to cast a wide and indiscriminate net. In the process, it has routinely dredged up acts that have not yet proven themselves or ones who are no longer in country’s mainstream affections. This doesn’t mean that the fringe nominees aren’t fine performers. Most are. But it does mean that many of them are manifestly token contenders who have absolutely no chance of winning.

The vocal duo field is the CMA’s conception of affirmative action.

This year’s vocal duo nominees are the Bellamy Brothers, Brooks & Dunn, The Kinleys, Montgomery Gentry and The Warren Brothers. While the Bellamys possess a distinguished chart history that stretches across 18 years and 10 No. 1 singles, they haven’t been on the charts in the past six years. Moreover, they no longer record for a major label. And the ugly truth is that label affiliation always carries more weight than pure talent when awards are dished out. The Kinleys and the Warren Brothers still haven’t established their sound. Montgomery Gentry come the closest to making this a real race. But the odds are against them. Brooks & Dunn have won this trophy every year from 1992 onward, a statistic that tends to lessen suspense.

From 1970, when the vocal duo award was introduced, through 1987, the category was open to any two artists who did a record together, even if they didn’t work together regularly as an act. Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton were the first winners under the original specification, and Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White were the last.

In 1988, the CMA created the vocal event division for separate acts who make a record together, whether in pairs, trios, quartets or multitudes. That same year, the vocal duo category was restricted to acts made up of only two performers. The vocal duo winner in 1988 — and for the next three years — was The Judds. Their competition that first year was the now mythic Bellamy Brothers, Foster & Lloyd, the O’Kanes and Sweethearts of the Rodeo. The Judds ruled the vocal duo roost until Brooks & Dunn came along. In other words, only two acts have won this award in the last 12 years.

While the Bellamys hold the record for most vocal duo nominations, having made the cut for 12 of the past 13 years, the Sweethearts of the Rodeo were almost as tenacious. And just as out-of-luck when the envelopes were opened. The Sweethearts, who last charted in 1991, stayed in the running through 1996.

No doubt the CMA was ecstatic when Baillie and the Boys, intially a trio, lost one of its members. With breathtaking speed, the two remaining members were swept into the vocal duo bosom, where they lodged otherwise unrewarded from 1989 through 1992.

Not surprisingly, the CMA has made several other stretches to fill out this most embracing of categories. Darryl & Don Ellis, whose highest charting single went only to No. 58, were among the 1993 nominees. Orrall & Wright, who peaked at No. 47, did their symbolic tour of duty in 1994. Others who donned maniacal grins as Brooks & Dunn swept past them were Brother Phelps (1994, 1995), John & Audrey Wiggins (1995, 1996, 1997), Baker & Myers (1996), the Raybon Bros. (1997), Thrasher Shiver (1997, 1998) and the Lynns (1998, 1999).

Given the CMA’s shameful neglect of Homer & Jethro, it looks like we can pretty much write off the LeGarde Twins. Unless, of course, the Bellamys break up.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to