by Julian Spivey
The future of country music could be decided at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards on Wednesday night. I know that’s a pretty bold statement, but I believe it could turn out to be true.
There’s no hiding the fact that country music has been at war with itself for the last few years. The genre has been infiltrated by pop and hip-hop aspects that has made it popular amongst a new group of listeners, but has also driven the old school country traditionalist fans mad and many of them away or at least to artists who aren’t played on mainstream radio.
The CMA nominations were a pleasant surprise to many when they included acts like Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Maddie & Tae and Lee Ann Womack – either newer or older favorites that still rely on more traditional country sounds for the bulk of their work.
Of course the nominations also included these pop-infused country acts like Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett.
This is pretty much a symbol of country music warring with itself, the actual awards on Wednesday will likely dictate which side is going to win out. Will the pop acts ruining a once great genre continue to thrive or will the more traditional aspects of country music come forward to hopefully inspire a change within the genre?
The outcome could likely come down to one award – Best New Artist. The nominees are Sam Hunt, Chris Stapleton, Thomas Rhett, Maddie & Tae and Kelsea Ballerini. Sure, Maddie & Tae, Ballerini or Rhett could all potentially win and there’s a lot to be made about the future of country music if one of those acts does, but I believe the front-runners to be Hunt and Stapleton.
Some might question whether Stapleton is actually a front-runner over the other three artists who are obviously played more on country radio (I’m willing to bet most of you have never actually heard a Stapleton song on the radio), but Stapleton’s three nominations including Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year for his terrific Traveller show me he’s more of a threat among the voters.
Stapleton is the traditionalist country music needs to save itself at the moment – there are other artists who I think could be in this position as well like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and the Turnpike Troubadours, but they are outsiders, whereas Stapleton really isn’t because he’s worked as a songwriter within the confines of the Nashville system writing crap for the very artists I’m hoping his solo style will one day defeat for the greater good of the genre. Stapleton writing songs for an artist like Luke Bryan, in fact, is one reason I was slow to take interest in his solo project.
But, I’m fully on team Stapleton for the CMA Awards tomorrow (except I would not mind Kacey Musgraves’ excellent Pageant Material beating Traveller out for Album of the Year).
Sam Hunt is the least country performer that’s ever been played on country radio and that’s saying a lot these days. Unlike the tripe performed by artists like Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean, Hunt doesn’t even try to masquerade as a country artist. And yet he’s played on mainstream country radio almost exclusively. I guess he and others within the system think that just because he’s from Georgia it means he’s “country.” It doesn’t really work that way.
As bad as bro-country was for the country music genre, Hunt’s bringing in EDM (electronic) aspects into the genre may even be worse. The infusion of pop, hip hop and EDM has stripped away everything that’s truly country about country music – when’s the last time you heard a fiddle, steel guitar or mandolin on mainstream country radio? Don’t even get me started on the stereotypical and frequently nonsensical lyrics of many of these songs, which often have three to four songwriters credited to them.
The fact that Sam Hunt is even considered to be in the realm of country music is a terrible sign for the future of the genre. How worse can it possibly get?
That’s why I’m completely interested in the Best New Artist category at the CMAs on Wednesday night. I don’t think it’s just another award – I think it’s the battle for the future and heart and soul of an entire musical genre.
If the award is a popularity contest (thank god it’s not voted on by the public) it will no doubt go to Hunt, who’s one of the most popular and most played figures in the genre at the moment. Luckily it’s supposed to come down to at least a modicum of talent and the voters have already shown they’re at least willing to lend some support to traditional country with the three nominations given to Stapleton. Now, let’s see if the voters are willing to go all the way and at least attempt to put country music back in the right direction.