CMA Awards as Grammy Auditions: How Country's Big Night Changed the Odds for Beyonce, Maren Morris & Maybe Even Dolly

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Beyoncé and The Dixie Chicks perform onstage at the 50th annual Country Music Awards on Nov. 2, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

When it comes to unofficially auditioning for the Grammys, there’s no public platform better timed than the Country Music Association Awards, which were held this year just two nights before the Grammys’ Nov. 4 initial balloting deadline. Who might have gotten a boost on their Staples Center chances by putting in an appearance at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena?

There was a lot of royalty on stage, thanks to the CMAs inviting dozens of veteran artists back for the 50th anniversary. But both among the mass viewing audience and Grammy insiders, the biggest buzz was over two queens. One, of course, was Queen Bey — and as for her relationship with Nashville and this year’s CMAs, we can only say, it’s complicated. (More on Beyonce’s triumph-with-an-asterisk later.)

The less expected and less mitigated crown belongs to newcomer Maren Morris, whose debut album, Hero, shot back up to No. 2 on the iTunes chart the next day. It’s hardly as if Morris hadn’t come up in the Grammy conversation before; Billboard recently had her on the cover as part of a group of three likely best new artist contenders. But her lauded CMAs appearance made that look like even more of a no-brainer.

While maintaining that the Grammys are the last thing he has in mind while he’s preparing the show, CMA Awards executive producer Robert Deaton said Friday (Nov. 4) that “nothing could please me more if we are somehow able to help her get a Grammy nomination in the best new artist category. I would love to see her in that space, winning that award, or even being nominated for it would just be terrific. That would be just insanely great.”

Reactions from Grammy voters and other vested observers inside the hall reflected the same upswing for Morris. Said a music industry figure who does not work directly in the country genre but attended the CMAs: “I would say Maren was the one — the main reason being that she had a massive musical production behind her, and that is a very accessible song (“My Church”). And next to no one hates that style of gospel/soul music, unless you butcher it. Which she didn't at all. I turned to my wife and said, ‘Oh yeah, there’s someone actually singing up there.’”

As for Beyonce, at least a handful of veteran Grammy voters and watchers felt that her appearance might have been timed to keep her at the forefront of tastemakers’ minds during what otherwise might be a post-tour lull.

“I thought it was really cool, and I also thought it was a great call right before the Grammys for Beyonce to celebrate her little Houston side of herself,” said a former Grammys trustee. “That was my first take when I heard she was doing the CMAs. Every awards show has to go for diversity now — it’s ‘Let not be like the Oscars’ — and I’d guess that’s part of the reason they reached out to the Beyonce people. And she and her people know that Nashville has the third largest voting contingent (for the Grammys), so I bet that’s a good reason why they said yes.”

But, clearly, the love for Beyonce’s performance with the Dixie Chicks was not across-the-board, even if the love felt closer to unanimous inside the hall than it did in the larger realm of social media afterward.

“I think it was a flat performance overall and a lot of industry people I have talked with were not impressed for a variety of reasons,” said a Nashville manager. “The overall show was great, but in my opinion that seemed out of place and felt forced. It just didn't fit the night to me, celebrating the 50 years, and the Dixie Chicks seemed like her backup band on it, without enough of a real shout-out to them. I was sitting behind Alan Jackson, and he actually stood up from the front row and walked out in middle of the performance, so I think that spoke volumes for the traditional, real country acts.”

Another attendee thought the industry contingent inside Bridgestone was almost uniformly in the bag for Beyonce: “I personally think just about everyone watching it live loved the performance and the pairing, even if [home] viewers were skeptical.” This same insider added, “I think Maren and possibly Thomas Rhett helped their Grammy chances. Maren is a strong performer and writer with a lot of support not just from her label but other artists, which will make a big difference.”

Although the Grammys typically make room for only one country artist in the all-genre best new artist category, a lot of Nashville insiders are still hoping for two. Kelsea Ballerini’s balladic “Peter Pan” didn’t make for as obviously splashy and brassy a performance, but “Kelsea is a total star on stage,” said one Nashvillian who’s been advocating for gender balance in the business. “I think seeing both of those women own it in different ways before a global audience spoke volumes for the stage that is set for the future of women in country music. It was awesome to witness.”

The Brothers Osborne are longer shots for a best new artist nod, but, while they were denied a performing slot, at least one Grammy watcher felt their abundance of personality at the podium after their shock win over Florida Georgia Line for best duo may have helped keep them in the conversation, even if they end up with better odds in the specifically country categories. “They’ll get in there, somehow. The industry just loves them,” said a manager.

Others who were mentioned as possibly raising their Grammy profile included Eric Church, whose duet with roots-music heroine (and close-call Broadway actress) Rhiannon Giddens offered a bit of less polarizing diversity. Although Keith Urban has been around long enough that he might get taken for granted, and his performance of the ballad “Blue Ain’t Your Color” didn’t galvanize the room like some of the others, it may not be lost on Grammy voters that that song went up to No. 2 on the iTunes chart after the telecast. The tune that topped it, Little Big Town’s “Better Man,” came out too recently to be Grammy-eligible, although one observer noted what a coup it would be for the Grammy producers if they could convince the song’s writer, Taylor Swift, to come on and perform it with LBT.

And the Grammys are notorious for nominating veteran artists who might not be up for CMAs and who haven’t had a hit single in years, so it shouldn’t just be the youngsters whose odds are considered. “I bet you 10-to-1 Dolly pulls off a Grammy nomination for Pure and Simple,” said the former trustee. “Her profile is so out there again all of a sudden, from the Hollywood Bowl to the CMA tribute. It’ll be interesting to see if her album doesn’t rise up out of pure Dolly love.”

2017 Grammys