(Written by Jonny Brick)
The Association of Country Music Awards (ACM Awards) are one of a plethora of sales-boosting televised prize-giving ceremonies which serve to remind audiences who are big hitters and who are coming up to hit big.
Brad and Carrie have taken the CMAs, a bigger night that gives a pre-Holiday Season fillip to that year’s big sellers. 2017’s ACM Awards, presented on April 2, will once again be hosted by the swarthy pair of Luke and Dierks; these A-list stars shine so brightly that it’s churlish to mention their surnames Bryan and Bentley. Luke took over from Blake (Shelton), who is now a TV star in his own right but is passed over entirely in the ACMs this year.
The ACMs, first handed out in 1966, are just as eclectic as the CMAs, with Entertainer of the Year the top prize and baubles for men, women, duos, groups, new artists and video and vocal events of the previous twelve months. For songwriters there’s the Song of the Year, while for performers there’s the Single Record of the Year.
Sturgill Simpson, a Grammy nominee for Album of the Year, is like Blake completely absent, but the Grammy New Artist nominees Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini are present and correct. Maren’s album Hero takes on Dierks, Florida Georgia Line, Keith Urban and, excellently, Miranda Lambert for Album of the Year. Miranda’s is a double-album featuring ‘Vice’, nominated for both Song of the Year and Single Record of the Year to support its Grammy Best Country Song nod. If Miranda wins all three, that would be excellent and not unfair, especially with her 2017 tour being a hot ticket; if she doesn’t win for Album, Maren’s has more great pop songs than the other shortlisted ones.
Song of the Year rewards songwriters as well as performers, and surprisingly the CMA Song of the Year and Best Country Song Grammy winner, Lori McKenna’s Humble and Kind, perhaps out of fairness to others is passed over. Blue Ain’t Your Color by Keith Urban, Eric Church’s Kill a Word and the old Dean Dillon/ Linda Hargrove song Tennessee Whisky, as revitalised by Chris Stapleton, must defeat the CMA Single of the Year Die a Happy Man.
Thomas Rhett’s country spin on Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud is also missing from Single Record of the Year, its ACM equivalent category, having won CMA category Record of the Year, but Tim McGraw should win it for his reading of Humble and Kind. My Church by Maren Morris, a tune that grabs you from the very first listen, is just as good, while Blue Ain’t Your Color and H.O.L.Y. by Florida Georgia Line also join Vice.
Songwriter of the Year has familiar names: Ashley Gorley, Shane McAnally, Lori McKenna, Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey, who work hard to write with or for the artists to sculpt new yet familiar melodies and themes. Lori may follow up her across-the-board success, especially given that she put out a release under her name too, but Hillary co-wrote Blue Ain’t Your Color, Ashely worked with Cole Swindell and Florida Georgia Line, and Luke wrote Head Over Boots for Jon Pardi as well as six Kacey Musgraves tunes from her second album.
Shane McAnally also worked on Kacey’s album, so if he doesn’t take that award, then Event of the Year must go to Shane’s Forever Country project, which will disappoint fans of Different for Girls, Setting the World on Fire (Kenny Chesney’s sole nomination), Think of You and May We All, good events all. Ditto Shane and that project for Video of the Year, which will sadden fans of Fire Away, Peter Pan, Humble and Kind and Vice. Shane also co-wrote Vice, and must have only had a spare six hours to sleep last year. He should make room in his writer’s room for two or three more baubles from the Academy of Country Music.
The Entertainer of the Year was, like Eurovision voting, briefly in the hands of fans alone, but is now picked by a panel. This cannot be anything to do with Jason Aldean, who won it last year, or Luke Bryan, CMA Award-winning Entertainer of the Year in 2014 and 2015 and ACM winner in 2012 and 2014 (awarded in 2013 and 2015). Aldean is trying to retain his prize in face of competition from Luke, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood and Florida Georgia Line. Keith puts on a great show, Carrie wears lots of costumes and FGL jump around a lot, but Luke should steal the title back.
Tyler and Brian aka Florida Georgia Line have been ACM Vocal Duo winners in the last three years, and may well have a fourth in the bag unless Brothers Osborne (John and TJ) pull a similar surprise to the one they did at the CMAs. Big & Rich, Dan + Shay and Maddie & Tae are the other ampersand-linked acts in this category.
New Vocal Duo or Group of the Year, with categories amalgamated this year, will go to one of A Thousand Horses, Dan + Shay, Brothers Osborne, LOCASH and Maddie & Tae. John and TJ should win this one on the strength of the solo on Stay a Little Longer alone, but each will be a worthy winner. Likewise any of the New Female Vocalists (Lauren Alaina, Cam, Brandy Clark, Maren Morris – one reckons this is Maren’s) or New Male Vocalist (Kane Brown, Chris Janson, Chris Lane, Jon Pardi, Brett Young – Janson’s story of grafting for years is great, but Kane has a lot of traction in the younger demographic). Maren is in with a shout for Female Vocalist too, of any pedigree, alongside fellow Texan Kacey Musgraves, Kelsea Ballerini and the omnipresent duo Miranda and Carrie (Underwood). Carrie’s win at the CMAs may compel the jury to match that prize, but both Kacey and Miranda made terrific albums full of personality.
For Vocal Group of the Year, won three times in the last four years by Little Big Town (who with their new residency at the Grand Ole Opry are odds-on to win again), Lady Antebellum and Rascal Flatts are the big contenders, with Eli Young Band and last year’s best New Vocal Group Old Dominion there or thereabouts.
There are more than five top male vocalists in the genre, and this year it’s the likes of Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley and even CMA Entertainer of 2016 Garth Brooks omitted. Chris Stapleton may well retain his title, but Jason Aldean won it the three years before him, and Keith Urban, Dierks and Thomas Rhett all enjoyed big crossover success and have all duetted with pop acts in some form or another. Even they would admit their voices do not match Stapleton’s.
Prizes are well and good, and the standards are so high that it is tough to pick a winner in any category. You may have your own personal preference, or may moan about any omission (Sturgill Simpson will be the only one not to care!), but as with new acts trying to break Nashville, the bar for entry is high for a reason.