NASHVILLE SKYLINE: CMA Entertainer of the Year Award Is a Horse Race

Will This Year's Honor Go to Chesney or Swift? Or Urban, Strait or Paisley?

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

The upcoming CMA awards show promises at least one moment of high drama. That will be when the entertainer of the year award is announced. All five nominees are eminently worthy of the honor.

But this year, it appears there are two clear frontrunners. No matter which of those two wins, there will be controversy swirling around the decision.

The reason? It looks to be a horse race between Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney. Swift represents the recent large shift in the nature of contemporary country music and, based on her accomplishments of the past year, is the clear winner on paper. Chesney has had a big year, is a proven winner and stands for country’s past, although it was not so long ago that he was viewed as a brash newcomer, just as Swift is today.

Besides Chesney and Swift, the nominees are George Strait, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban. The latter will likely draw a huge vote for the sheer dynamism of his live performances, as well as for his high-profile All for the Hall concert benefiting the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Paisley’s solid album and tour, as well as his White House performance, will stand him well. And Strait is, well, he is George Strait. So, you can’t completely count anyone out.

It should be pointed out that CMA voters tend to be more traditional, slow to adopt rapid change and even conservative in their attitudes and consequently in their votes. The awards are very much rooted in tradition, and the reasoning is that otherwise, there is the risk of having country’s most prestigious awards going to the flavor-of-the month.

There is another significant factor at work in the election process. It’s been no secret in recent years that Nashville’s major record labels can turn out voters in large numbers. Of the five nominees, four are on major labels: Chesney and Paisley are on Sony, Strait is on Universal, and Urban is on Capitol. Swift is on the small independent label Big Machine. Given the fact, though, that there are more than 5,000 CMA members in the U.S. and around the world, I think the label factor applies more to the early nominating process than to the final vote.

Here’s another factor that is seldom addressed: In its 42-year history, the entertainer of the year award has been won only seven times by women: Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell (twice), Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks.

This year, though, I personally think Taylor has earned the entertainer award. She has sold more records than any other artist in any genre in the U.S., rapidly become a headliner with record-breaking ticket sales, won the right awards, was the first country artist to win a MTV Video Award and was on Saturday Night Live twice and on Oprah twice. She has effectively been the face of country music this year. The CMT fan poll, and many other fan indicators, peg her as a fan favorite.

But I suspect that many voters, when they pulled the lever, looked at a vote for Chesney as a vote for continuity. He has, after all, won the award the past three years straight and won four out of the last five years and had a banner year. And I know that many traditionalists still favor Strait. And others prefer Urban or Paisley, so I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if a split vote between Swift and Chesney would result in a win for Urban, Paisley or Strait.

Here is the wording of the CMA’s criteria for the entertainer award: “This award is for the act displaying the greatest competence in all aspects of the entertainment field. Voter should give consideration not only to recorded performance but also to the in-person performance, staging, public acceptance, attitude, leadership and overall contribution to the country music image.” So, which of the five nominees do you feel best fits those criteria?

Keep in mind again that many CMA voters, in my experience, see the CMA Awards as a meritocracy and not as a popularity contest. Many expect young artists to prove themselves as having staying power before rewarding them. Both Strait and Chesney won their first entertainer of the year award seven years after their first No. 1 hit. Keith Urban took five years after his first No. 1 to score an entertainer win. Paisley has not yet won, a full 10 years after his first No. 1.

Here’s how strongly some people feel about CMA awards in general and the big entertainer award in particular. In 1975, John Denver won the entertainer award. Denver had enjoyed a big year but was widely viewed in Nashville as being too pop and not really country. When the award was presented on the live telecast, presenter Charlie Rich — who had won the award the year before — opened the envelope and saw the winner’s name. Without saying a word, he pulled out his cigarette lighter and set fire to it. Then he announced that the award went to “my friend, Mr. John Denver.”