NASHVILLE SKYLINE: CMA Awards: When the Whip Comes Down

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Handicapping the CMA nominations is a hopeless cause. The lists have become fascinating by their very unpredictability. Since the CMA membership is not Nashville-centric — the membership rolls being national and international — the voting can be very diverse. But know this: The voters don’t take these most prestigious of country music awards lightly.

Consider this: Who would have predicted that Shania Twain and Faith Hill would have been absolutely shut out of this year’s nominations? No way. Although … you had to wonder, when Twain’s and Hill’s last CDs were so heavily pop, whether the chickens would one day come home to roost. They seem to have just landed in the chicken coop. Twain was the CMA entertainer of the year in 1999; Hill was CMA female vocalist winner in 2000. This year, they’re not even on the tote board.

At some point, the CMA voters seem to feel compelled to crack the whip. They did it when Dolly Parton went pop — and now that she’s come back home these many years later, she’s up on the nominee board again for the coveted female vocalist award. (Although she won as part of vocal event awards in 1996 and 1988, she has not claimed a solo award since 1978 when she was entertainer of the year). There are unspoken standards within the CMA voters and they vote according to those standards. And you can spot voting patterns — this year, four out of the five songs in both the single of the year and song of the year categories are the same (“Three Wooden Crosses,” “Beer For My Horses,” “Celebrity,” and “Have You Forgotten?”).

Johnny Cash has four nominations this year. He last won a CMA Award in 1969 (he grabbed five that year). He’s been nominated in the vocal event of the year category since then, but his last solo nomination came in 1970. More than three decades without a solo nomination. Why? Ask the voters.

Back in history, pop-country artists John Denver and Olivia Newton-John held sway — but only briefly. In 1974, Newton-John (with four solo nominations) won the female vocalist award. In 1975, Denver was up for five solo awards and won song of the year (for “Back Home Again”) and entertainer of the year (in the famous moment when Charlie Rich set fire to Denver’s winning envelope onstage and on live TV). After the ensuing fan and media firestorm of criticism, Denver and Newton-John disappeared forever from the CMA nomination lists. When Tanya Tucker headed for Hollywood and a run at pop music in 1975, she vanished completely from the CMA nominations for 13 years — which gave her plenty of time to come home and repent. LeAnn Rimes got five nominations and one win during her debut “Blue” period (1996-1997). Then came the pop songs and she’s disappeared from the nomination list ever since.

Then there’s the matter of the Dixie Chicks. Given their circumstances earlier this year, this should have been a banner nomination year for the Chicks. Consider this: With Home they crafted one of the best country albums of this or any other year. Album of the Year? A lock. Their single of Bruce Robison’s great song “Travelin’ Soldier” was head and shoulders above most country singles this year. Single of the year and song of the year? Book ’em. Their sold-out tour grossed more than $60 million and drew rave critical reviews. Entertainer of the year award? It’s a no-brainer. Vocal group of the year? Who else? Throw in vocal event and video, and you’re looking at what should have been a locked-in seven nominations for the Chicks.

They got just two (for album and group). Their arch-enemy Toby Keith got the seven. For such a great country music group, this is an artistic tragedy. Nobody should be cheering for the Chicks’ misfortune.

But, it must be said that they mostly brought it down on themselves. Their and their organization’s responses in the wake of Natalie Maines’ remarks in London are a classic case in how not to handle damage control. For a classic case in how to run damage control, see an incident such as the poisoning of Tylenol, when Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson faced head-on the matter of tainted product. They dealt frankly with the public, explained the situation, vowed to deal with the problem — and did so. End of matter. The company could have faced bankruptcy over the incident but instead came away as a public champion.

Natalie’s remarks have been variously addressed by the Chicks as being: 1. A heartfelt, spontaneous response to the antiwar sentiment then being expressed in London, where they were performing. 2. A mother’s reaction to war itself. 3. A mistake. 4. A joke. 5. A reason to get naked on a magazine cover and try to claim high moral ground. 6. A source of pride. 7. A recurring source of pride.

If they had simply said they opposed the war and stood by that, people would have respected their stand — even if they disagreed. But their prevarication was their undoing. At the risk of raking over old ground, I have to posit a verity: The bedrock country music audience does not view patriotism as a joke. A heartfelt sentiment is one thing, as is a matter of principle. But a joke is a whole ’nother thing. And a smokescreen is something else again. People — including CMA voters — respect honesty. Waylon Jennings never concealed his contempt for awards shows in general and the CMA Awards show in particular. But the CMA voters respected him, honored his honesty and kept nominating him and giving him some wins.

Coming clean with the public might well have made this whole thing go away for the Chicks. But, it didn’t happen. And, I’ve heard from many readers that the final straw for them was the cheap shot taken on TV against Toby Keith, with the sophomoric message on a T-shirt. And I’ve heard the same from some of my fellow CMA voters.

So, what should have been seven nominations now equals two nominations. And for the future? Look to the past.