When the Country Music Assn. unveiled the finalists for its 46th annual awards, the list was met with numerous frowns. It had plenty of room for boundary-challenging acts, but not much space for tradition.
Eric Church's "Springsteen," with a lyric overtly embracing a rock concert, drew a field-leading five nominations. Jason Aldean, who considers himself a country singer backed by a rock band, and Dierks Bentley, whose current "5-1-5-0" employs Van Halen and Ozzy Osbourne references. Picked up four. Pop-textured Taylor Swift and Little Big Town netted three. The CMAs even had room for Snoop Lion and Lionel Richie.
In short supply were acts that can be considered stout traditionalists. Alan Jackson nabbed a slot only for a collaboration with Zac Brown Band, and George Strait-tied with Jackson for the most career nominations at 81-was absent for a second consecutive year. Brad Paisley, who co-hosts the awards with Carrie Underwood on Nov. 1, received a lone nomination. In fact, the CMAs underscore a perceptible shift in the genre as it continues to undergo a fragile transition, amassing as large an audience as possible while its radio format avoids fragmenting in the way that pop and rock have split.
Since its formal inception as "old-time music" in the early 20th century, country has witnessed a stylistic tug of war between pop and traditional forces. Now, country's big tent is propped up not by just those two poles but three: traditional country, pop-influenced music and a rock-edged sound. As a result, the genre is drawing more attention from younger music fans, whom historically spend more than older consumers on entertainment. But it's also challenging fans who are reaching the upper end or aging out of country radio's preferred 25-54 demographic.
"We hear it every day," WUSY Chattanooga, Tenn., music director Bill Poindexter says. "We'll hear people say, 'What happened to Conway Twitty?' 'Where are the Willie Nelsons?' And we're one of the stations [that] still play some of the legends, though probably not as much as we did 10 years ago."
At the same time, Poindexter notes, high school students "go nuts" when the station takes part in public events, peppering air talent and executives with questions about Swift, Aldean and Underwood.
"It's thrilling to me to see these high school kids fired up about country music," he adds.
A three-pronged sonic blend is a more difficult animal than the two-pronged mix that country has historically been considered. Blake Shelton's CMA-nominated "God Gave Me You"-a cover of a pop song by an artist with a decidedly country voice, lifestyle and image- falls somewhere between the pop and trad-country poles. Miranda Lambert's CMA-nominated album Four the Record-mixing some feisty rock elements with a stone Southern accent- drifts between rock and traditional poles.
Programmers are tasked with sampling all those variations in short time spans.
"What I tell my stations to try and do is design your radio station in 20-minute segments so that if I listen for 20 minutes, I get a feel for everything your radio station has to offer musically," West Virginia Radio director of programming and brand management Charlie Cook says. "In 20 minutes, a listener says, 'I know what that station's all about. They play [rockin'] Jason Aldean, but they also play [traditionalist] Easton Corbin and they play [poppy] Taylor Swift, but they also play [a less-defined] Miranda Lambert.'"
Given radio's standing as the most effective means of exposure for country songs, it's an approach that has some distinct fans at Music Row labels.
"I've preached for years that country music is at its best when our radio format is the widest possible," Universal Music Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan says. "I always refer to 1994 when we had David Ball's 'Thinkin' Problem' all the way over on the [traditional] right and we had the Tractors' 'Baby Likes to Rock It' all the way over on the [progressive] left-some people argued that that was never a country record in the first place-and things were great. Ticket sales were great, album sales were great, country music was the shit, and anybody who wasn't doing country music or in country music wanted to be part of it."
Country's ability to blend other formats is the result of a number of factors. The growth of digital delivery systems has increased younger fans' willingness to explore multiple musical styles. The continued evolution of the population toward urban and suburban residence has changed people's view of farm life-it's no longer considered a requisite hardship as much as a quaint escape from traffic-jammed stress. And the narrowing of many top 40 stations into dance-centric rhythms has perhaps driven some listeners to other genres, or even made its devotees more willing to punch out on occasion for an earthier respite.
"Our audience has grown and changed so much," KVOO Tulsa, Okla., PD Crash Poteet says. "We're not pushing the envelope quite as much by playing these different textures sonically because you've got an influx of people that have been listening to rock or grew up with pop that are looking for stories and relatable music."
If country is indeed moving from a two-pole format to a three-pole genre, and if each of those poles receives equal time, the percentage of the traditional pole is necessarily diminished. That, as much as anything, would explain why it's difficult to find much in the way of pure country on the list of CMA nominations.