Deejay Eddie Stubbs, who knows country music as well as anybody, has said, “People like music with heart. People like music with passion. People like music with soul and conviction. But they don’t get to hear it very often.”
Nominations for The 34th CMA Awards, announced Tuesday (Aug. 1) in Nashville, rewarded music with heart and soul. Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” a song that expresses the wish of one generation for the well-being of the next, captured nominations for Single, Song and Vocal Event of the Year (with harmony singers Sons of the Desert). The video, nominated for Music Video of the Year, depicts tender interaction between singer Womack and her daughters, Aubrie, 9, and Anna Lise, 19 months.
“I Hope You Dance” also helped Womack land nods for Female Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year, for a collection of the same name that includes a mix of traditional and more contemporary sounds. “When a song makes me think of something that special, that precious to me,” Womack said, “I assume it will do that for other people, too.”
“He Didn’t Have to Be,” by Brad Paisley, is about the gratitude a stepson comes to feel for the devotion of a stepfather. Like “I Hope You Dance,” it picked up nominations for Single, Song and Video of the Year, and Paisley is nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year, Horizon Award and Album of the Year, for Who Needs Pictures. “‘He Didn’t Have to Be’ is another situation where it was something that people wanted,” Paisley said about the song. “They didn’t know they wanted it, but when you said it, they were like, ‘That’s me, that’s exactly how I feel.’ What a healthy category to be in, with songs that are that heartfelt.”
Passion of the romantic kind also did well in the nominations, from Kenny Rogers’ career-reviving “Buy Me a Rose,” nominated for Single of the Year, to Faith Hill’s “Breathe” (which she performed on last year’s CMA awards show), up for Single, Song and Video of the Year, and “Amazed,” whose writers, Marv Green, Aimee Mayo and Chris Lindsey, are in the running for Song of the Year.
Husband-wife teams have two of the five nominations for Vocal Event of the Year. Hill and Tim McGraw get an entry for “Let’s Make Love,” while Clint Black and Lisa Hartman Black weigh in with “When I Said I Do.”
Also in the Vocal Event field is “Murder on Music Row,” an entrenched call for a return to country music’s time-honored traditions, including an instrumental lineup that relies on fiddles and steel guitars. The song has three nominations in all: Vocal Event (as performed by George Strait and Alan Jackson), Single and Song of the Year (for composers Larry Cordle and Larry Shell).
With country music’s market share dipping to 10.8 percent last year, lower than any year since 1990, some country artists seem to be turning away from the pop-oriented experiments of recent years in favor of more traditional fare. Womack and Paisley both preach the value of staying loyal to tried-and-true sounds. “Murder on Music Row” is a diatribe on that point. Also nominated are Jackson’s Under the Influence, a collection of hard country covers, and “Roly Poly,” a Bob Wills tune done by Asleep at the Wheel with the Dixie Chicks.
Many artists continue to work in a compromised country style, driving the music with pounding drums and hair-band-style guitar solos, while throwing in an occasional trademark country lick. Toby Keith’s “How Do You Like Me Now?!,” nominated for Video of the Year and Single of the Year, and many of the tracks on Hill’s Breathe, nominated for Album of the Year, fall into that category.
The Chicks have pulled off the neat trick of appealing to both traditional and progressive audiences by performing a country shuffle like “Hello Mr. Heartache” or a yodel like “Don’t Waste Your Heart” on the same album as the raucous, rocking and controversial “Goodbye Earl.” Their headlining tour has earned them another nomination for Entertainer of the Year, while Fly, the set containing those songs, is up for Album of the Year. The group also will try to hold on to the Vocal Group of the Year title they won last year.
Consider Entertainer of the Year, where the Chicks, the pop-leaning Hill, traditionalists Strait and Jackson and McGraw, who tends to play both sides, are vying with each other for the top honor. This year’s vote could be very revealing. Winners will be announced Oct. 4 at the Grand Ole Opry House. The proceedings will be carried live by CBS. If any further evidence were needed that things are changing in big ways, consider that for the first time since 1991, Garth Brooks is not up for Entertainer of the Year (and for the first time since 1990, he has no nominations at all).
Following the announcement of nominations at Nashville’s Adelphia Coliseum, CMA Executive Director Ed Benson reasoned that fans attracted to country music in the boom of the early ’90s are more accustomed to embracing new artists than the traditional country music fan.
“The challenge for the existing stars is to stay fresh and create new music and maintain their impact in the marketplace,” Benson said. “A lot of our artists are doing a great job of that. They’re crossing over and broadening their audiences, and these new stars are coming along. Some of these new stars are very traditional.”