NASHVILLE SKYLINE: CMA Voters’ Dilemma:

Vote With Your Heart? Or With Your Wallet?

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

So, I hear talk of a public outcry for a recall of the CMA Awards. That’s coming from Toby Keith fans, of course, and I don’t blame them for being upset. Although the awards are not fan-voted, you would think that Keith had proved himself over the past year clearly to be the leading candidate for entertainer of the year — he was certainly a tad ahead of the Chicks until their “incident.” And you wonder why voters nominate an artist seven times but then decide that he’s maybe not worth a win, after all.

Logic and reason, though, don’t always occupy a center role in any awards voting process.

The politics of CMA voting are murky at best. A lot of it stems from an “us. Vs. them” mentality. Everyone knew the Dixie Chicks would be punished this year by the voters for their fall from grace and their sloppy attempts at damage control. Back before the nominations, though, not everyone sensed that Shania Twain and Faith Hill would be spanked for their pop transgressions. I personally still find it puzzling that Keith Urban was passed over in the nominations, especially for his album.

But in the actual voting process, a vote for entertainer of the year for Keith became in many people’s eyes a vote for controversy (which is of course why the Chicks were frozen out). The Alan Jackson vote for entertainer, on the other hand, was a safe one, and the CMA voter is usually in favor of safe rather than sorry. But it was also in some ways a default vote. A vote for Jackson is in many people’s eyes a vote for the way country ought to be, and sound and look. (God help him if he gets any older, however.) I agree that he has become — deservedly so — the public image of country music.

The other chief factor working in this year’s CMA voting is the very obvious endorsement of a return to normalcy — in this case, “normalcy” being a return to country traditionalism. I’m not referring to a retro sound; rather, a return to the basic country premise: storytelling songs set to an earthy beat.

The vote for “Three Wooden Crosses” is certainly an extension of that return to country’s home. It’s a great story, sung believably by a great country voice, and it’s set to good, simple music. I voted for it because it seemed to easily be the best in field.

The Cash vote itself is very easy to understand. He had not won a CMA Award since 1969, and his strong musical presence in the late ’90s had been completely overlooked by the CMA, and many voters felt it was time to make amends. The Cash vote was by no means a sympathy note, however. Cash earned every one of those awards. I think the video “Hurt,” itself, would have won in any year regardless of any competition because of its sheer power and force and artistry. Cash himself remained a very powerful reminder of the values that country music has always professed to admire: honesty, integrity, frankness; and a devotion to family, friends and faith. And Cash also reminds us now that there are a precious few artists who will always be able to draw dead better than most artists can draw live.

The Rascal Flatts win for group of the year is more difficult to explain. In a year of a return to bedrock country values, a very pop-leaning group wins a big award. Consider this, though: the Chicks would have won this hands-down if not for their accident. I think voters looked past the nominations of Diamond Rio (five previous CMA awards), Alabama (nine previous wins) and Lonestar (one previous) to settle on last year’s Horizon-winning group for one big reason. Rascal Flatts, at the moment at least, represent an investment in country music’s future. In an era when commercial breakthroughs are few and far between, Rascal Flatts are a genuine commercial breakthrough, both on the road and in the store racks. A whole lot of CMA voters have a big financial stake tied up in the future of this musical genre. So they’re voting with their future earnings. The conscience vote is nice, but the money vote also plays a role. Vote with your heart or your wallet? Strive for a workable balance.