NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Jason Aldean: What’s Going On Here?

The Curious Case of Jason Aldean's Awards Nominations

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

When the nominations for the ACM awards were announced the other day, I didn’t pay close attention at first. Looked like the usual suspects. After a while, I started wondering: It’s obvious who is there — but who is not? Well, there are many worthy country artists who aren’t often there and aren’t there now. Rascal Flatts deserved nomination for entertainer of the year, especially now that category has been expanded to include eight names. But Flatts were snubbed. Tim McGraw was ignored again this year.

One very obvious missing name was Jason Aldean. The guy can’t buy an award nomination, anywhere anymore, after winning the ACM top new male artist award in 2006. He’s gotten two CMA nominations in the past, both in the new artist category. He lost in 2007 to Taylor Swift and in 2008 to Lady Antebellum.

I will tell you straight out that I’m not in Aldean’s camp. I’ve met him a couple of times, and I don’t like everything he’s recorded and sung, but I like enough of it to know that he is really good for country music right now. He’s got a whole bunch of the rough edges, both personally and musically, that have always defined country music and have been its appeal, and he’s not afraid to step out on the edge and cross the borderline into that never land where many are afraid to venture. I applaud that in the few artists brave enough to try it. This guy is country. I really like that. I think that’s still called having “cojones.”

Music awards shows are not to be taken seriously. Awards shows are basically meant to be fun, circus-y, what-the-hell variety shows. If they’re not, they’re in jeopardy of extinction. Any awards show that takes itself too seriously is in serious danger of irrelevancy. But if the awards become too mail-order variety, then what? And if the nominations begin to exclude a worthy nominee, is there any alternative for the shunned?

What does an absence of nominations do to an artist’s career? Can that actually poison a career?

Not everyone has much use for such self-congratulatory exercises. When they were riding high with the Outlaw movement, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson asked the CMA in 1977 that their names be removed from the nominations list, saying that artists should not be put into the position of competing with each other. The CMA refused, but neither artist won that year.

Aldean has one of only five albums on the Billboard country albums chart that has sold platinum in the past 12 months (the others are Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now, Carrie Underwood’s Play On, The Hannah Montana Soundtrack and Rascal Flatts’ Unstoppable). His current album, Wide Open, sold 1 million copies in eight months in an era where few artist, pop or country, hit that mark. Two of his first three albums have sold platinum and the third is at the three-quarter million mark.

I’m not denigrating the song, but David Nail’s “Red Light” is nominated for ACM single of the year, but it never charted higher than No. 7 on Billboard’s country chart. Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor,” “She’s Country” and “The Truth” have all been No. 1 radio hits in the past year, and those first two each sold over 1 million digital singles. The ACM criteria for the single of the year are “success at radio, record sales, success in digital media, and impact of the single on consumers and the country music industry.”

What does it take? Why can’t he get an award nomination? The easy answers are the usual suspects: bloc voting by the major Nashville country record labels, which excludes smaller labels such as Aldean’s Broken Bow Records and even Tim McGraw’s Curb Records. The small label stigma did not seem to affect Taylor Swift, who became an unstoppable tsunami on her own.

The other big answer is the elephant in the room: the term mainstream artist, that being the unspoken ideal right now. Mainstream is shorthand for crossover, for true success in that imagined big rock candy mountain world that many people think exists somewhere outside the realm of a country music identity. Into a world of non-edgy, pop-leaning music that doesn’t offend anyone. “Mainstream” is also shorthand for quick payoffs for those holding a financial piece of the poor goose who is able to at least briefly sell gold right now. With no future guaranteed.

Here’s the 2010 ACM nomination list for male vocalist: Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, George Strait and Keith Urban. Here’s the 2009 CMA list for male vocalist: Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, George Strait, and Keith Urban. Are those truly the five most praiseworthy guys right now? Are the ACM and CMA voters the same people?

Luke Bryan has now been nominated for the best ACM new male vocalist award for the years 2008 and 2010. That’s nice for him, but it’s hell on the other guys getting shut out of that three-nominee category. And, you have to wonder, when do you stop being “new”?

So, take awards shows on their own terms, you know. Or ignore them completely. Just don’t cite them as gospel. And when they don’t truly reflect country music, let people know that. Remember, these aren’t so much awards ceremonies as they are — first and foremost — TV shows. And the nominees are, more and more, just the cast.