(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Change comes slowly to country music. For a good example, take the Country Music Association Awards. The winners turn over slowly, like autumn leaves scuttling before the chill of a winter wind. Temporary change is always nominally welcome, but lasting change is very gradual. Country has a stable core of stars, and newcomers face a daunting task of breaking through the ranks of waiting candidates.
Case in point: this year's CMA nominees. The nominated songs and albums change entirely from year to year; the principals don't. Tradition plays a huge part in loyal country fans' lives. A majority of country fans and artists do revere tradition and history. A surprising number, for example, still remember the Carter Family, whose first important recordings were made 82 years ago.
But, the point is, you could doze off during one year's awards show, somehow sleep for two years or so there in front of the TV, and when you awoke, you wouldn't immediately notice anything different. You'd be looking at mostly the same artists and hearing similar music. There is much to be said in favor of that because it's a big reason why country music is so loved by its loyal fans. Still, new blood is needed from time to time. So, whattya got in the way of fresh plasma this year?
Not a whole lot. Let's start with the big one, entertainer of the year. Four of last year's nominees are back -- Kenny Chesney (the 2007 winner), Brad Paisley, George Strait and Keith Urban. In what is an injection of new blood, Sugarland replaces Rascal Flatts as a nominee this year. A major development? Yes, because of Flatts' huge popularity. What does it mean? Hard to say what motivates all the voters (who are industry professional members of the CMA), but obviously many favor some fresh and new group energy here. And Sugarland have provided that, in a huge way.
In the female vocalist category, four of the 2007 nominees return -- Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood (the winner). This year, Taylor Swift replaces Reba McEntire. Swift has moved very quickly from audacious newcomer to country veteran. Krauss is a marvelous singer, one who has always been ignored by country radio, although she has won seven CMA awards. This has not been a hugely active year for McBride.
Again, in the male vocalist category, four of last year's candidates repeat -- Chesney, Paisley (the winner), Strait and Urban. Veteran Alan Jackson replaces last year's relative newcomer, Josh Turner, who had a fairly inactive year. Jackson had a successful album, single and video, and he is a cherished country regular. A lot of people wonder, justifiably so, why Trace Adkins isn't here this year.
The new artist category last year was called the Horizon Award. I'm not real clear on why it was changed -- something about "horizon" coming to be associated with "new" or something. I'm just not sure. Taylor Swift won it last year, when she was truly a new artist. So there you go. Three nominees repeat from last year: Jason Aldean (who is not technically new), Rodney Atkins (ditto) and Kellie Pickler (also ditto). Lady Antebellum and James Otto replace last year's nominees Little Big Town and Swift. I think this is sort of coming to be the award for emerging-artists-who-may-have-had-success-but-haven't-yet-won-a-CMA-award. Works for me.
It's such a thinly-populated category that all five of last year's nominees repeat in the vocal duo category -- Big & Rich, Brooks & Dunn, Montgomery Gentry, Sugarland (the winner) and the Wreckers. Brooks & Dunn were created in 1991 and have won this award 14 times since (with only Montgomery Gentry and Sugarland breaking their string). Big & Rich were inactive this year. The Wreckers are no longer an active duo at all. So, were all these nominees thoroughly vetted? Doesn't seem so, when we have a duo that doesn't even exist anymore receive a nomination. Nominated for what?
Three groups repeat in the vocal group category this year: Emerson Drive, Little Big Town and Rascal Flatts (the 2007 winner). Gone are Alison Krauss & Union Station and the Dixie Chicks. Replacing them are the Eagles and Lady Antebellum. What can I say? The latter are a fine young group, and the Eagles have been influencing all of modern country since their formation in 1971 and their first charted country single in 1975. They were nominated for this award in 1976 and 1977 but have never won. And, over the past year, they have the biggest-selling country album with Long Road Out of Eden.
One big development this year was Trace Adkins' first nominations in 10 years, for single and video for the song "You're Gonna Miss This" (also nominated for song of the year, an award that goes to writer and publisher). So why has he been out of voters' minds for so long? What brought him back? I would venture to guess that Adkins' sterling performance on network television's The Celebrity Apprentice made country music look so good that a lot of voters sort of woke up and decided it was time to make amends and set things straight.
One consideration before you start to express your outrage as to what albums and singles weren't nominated this year: The eligibility period is from July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008. So, my favorite 2008 album thus far this year, Jamey Johnson's That Lonesome Song, was ineligible because of its August 2008 release date.
Say what you will about the CMA awards (and I have in the past). Year in and year out, these awards are overall the most solid and accurate indicator of what's working and valid and good in country music.