Country In the 'Shift Age': This Year's CMAs Reflected a Music Business in Transition

Jason Davis/FilmMagic
Luke Combs performs onstage during the 52nd annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 14, 2018 in Nashville.

When author-futurist David Houle dubbed the current window of time "the Shift Age," the former Country Radio Seminar keynote speaker recognized that culture had entered a period where digital transformations, exploding populations and dwindling resources would change our perceptions of reality.

As we speed through a period Houle billed as "the Transformation Decade," the 52nd annual Country Music Association Awards aptly embraced the tug between past and present on Nov. 14. Some of its key trophies went to Keith UrbanChris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves -- artists whose work reflects both a deep reverence for history and a hunger for something new. The CMA's new artist of the year, Luke Combs, represented the changing nature of the business itself, given his ability to use online tools to market and sell his music before he parted with the legacy-model label system. Female vocalist winner Carrie Underwood and vocal event victors Kenny Chesney and David Lee Murphy employed music in the past year that — if listeners received it in the right mind frame — provides reassurance in the tumultuous societal framework that all that transformation has produced. And vocal duo of the year Brothers Osborne off-handedly reassured the press corps backstage that its job remains vital in spite of the attacks it has endured in these uncertain times.

"You are not the enemy of the people," quipped T.J. Osborne.

To be certain, the CMAs produced plenty of stability, beginning with Underwood and Brad Paisley's return as hosts for an 11th straight year. Underwood's victory was her fifth win in the category and second in the last three years. Meanwhile, the Osbornes copped their third consecutive duo trophy, Stapleton snagged his fourth straight male vocalist honor (and upped his win total to 13 trophies in a four-year period), and guitarist Mac McAnally snared his 10th musician of the year accolade, surpassing Country Music Hall of Famer Chet Atkins in the process.

But the night held distinct shifts, too. Old Dominion's ascent as vocal group of the year loosened Little Big Town's six-year grip on the category, while Combs' new artist trophy made him only the second act in history — behind 2016 winner Maren Morris — to win the award after using his indie social and streaming stats to garner a deal with a major label.

"It's uncharted territory," said Combs backstage. "Guys like myself and Kane [Brown] and Dan + ShayBrett Young, are kind of lucky to be in a circle of artists who have started things on their own and kind of been adopted by the Nashville system."

That unstoppable digital growth is part of what has created the unease in the culture. Advances in green energy technologies, online sales and self-driving cars have negatively impacted current and future job prospects in coal, brick-and-mortar retail and transportation services, and that has led to understandable fear in the hinterlands. Underwood addressed that fear in a meaningful way with her current single, "Love Wins," finishing her CMA performance of the song with her hands raised to form a heart symbol. Meanwhile, "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" — which brought Chesney his 10th CMA Award and Murphy his first — represented country's ability to bring a modicum of serenity to all the turbulence.

"I'm really proud of the notes and comments that I've gotten from people that were having something rough go on in their life and it made a small difference," said Murphy on the red carpet at the ASCAP Country Music Awards on Nov. 12. "It's crazy [in the world], and we didn't intend to write a song about making everybody go, ‘Hey, [it's OK].' That's not how it started out, but that's what it became, and I think it's a message that kind of resonates with a lot of people."

Stapleton's haul represented the same sort of reassurance. "Broken Halos," a song co-written by Mike Henderson that views grief with an orderly acceptance, claimed both single and song of the year. It became the 21st song winner in the CMA's 52-year awards history to incorporate death in its storyline, underscoring the genre's historical willingness to tackle tough subject matter. 

Stapleton appropriately dedicated one of those victories to 12 people who had lost their lives one week prior in a massacre at Borderline Bar & Grill, a country club in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The CMAs started with a moment of silence, guided by Garth Brooks, as the awards were shadowed for a second straight year with a mass shooting at a country concert site. That's one aspect of the Transformation Decade that country — and society as a whole — have yet to effectively address, though the genre's artists continue to bravely roll on.

In the meantime, stylistically, country pushes ever forward. Musgraves, who has often cited such heritage artists as Glen Campbell and Marty Robbins among her biggest influences, pulled off the album win with Golden Hour, a project that deftly mixed old-soul melancholy and classic country wordplay with modern pop textures.

"She kind of knew from the get-go that she wanted to be somebody that's moving the genre forward while still honoring some of the things that are part of her country DNA," said Daniel Tashian, who co-produced Golden Hour with Ian Fitchuk, on the red carpet. "She loves banjo, she loves steel guitar, she loves country topics — she loves all those things, but she also loves [atmospheric electronic genre] vaporwave, and she loves futurism. She really has both of these things, and it's unusual."

That's perhaps a sign of the duality necessary for artists who can continue to succeed in the Shift Age. That dichotomy is at the core of Urban's sound. He combined his interest in both past and present music this year with "Coming Home," a title that successfully grafted edgy modern-pop sonics atop a 50-year-old guitar riff from Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried." Urban, who waited 13 years to claim his second entertainer trophy, is known for crafting guitar solos on the fly in his live concerts, literally living on the edge between mastery and disaster. And it's that sort of daring that will separate the innovators from the followers as the Shift Age marches forward.

"At the end of the day, I'm an artist. We create," said Urban backstage. "The struggle for me in touring is that at some point you can get to a place where you're re-creating. The death for an artist is to re-create. That's why I'm tinkering with the show every day, because it keeps me engaged and keeps it fresh, and it keeps it real and present. Being present is everything. It's so important to be in the moment. We get to do that every night."

The CMA had a moment on Nov. 14. And its music continues its transition for another year until the 2019 edition reveals how the genre — and the society it feeds and represents — is progressing for a 53rd time.