With two women in the running for entertainer of the year and two Black artists up for new artist, the 55th annual Country Music Association Awards have the potential to represent a turning point in the genre.
CMA voters have fielded the most diverse ballot in the organization’s history for the ceremony, which airs tonight from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on ABC. It could represent the beginning of a new era for country, opening up the format to a wider swath of creative talent, which might broaden its demographic appeal. But it could also prove to be merely a passing reflection of current trends, a short-term reaction to the world at large that dissipates into country’s historic reliance on predominantly white male artists.
“It’s important to have a broad, diverse genre, just because it’s the right thing to do,” says BMG Nashville president of recorded music Jon Loba. “But I also think it’s the profitable thing to do if we want to grow and evolve and be self-sustaining.”
BMG’s country labels, known collectively as BBR Music Group, represent that philosophy. The company’s roster includes two Black singers — Blanco Brown and new artist nominee Jimmie Allen — as well as Latin newcomer Frank Ray and openly gay female Brooke Eden.
That diversity is likewise apparent in the CMA ballot. Only two categories, entertainer and new artist, allow acts of any configuration — male, female, duo or group — to compete against each other based on their output for the entire year instead of a specific product, such as an album, single or video. And this year, those two fields point to the industry’s growing support of previously underrepresented constituencies.
Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert are finalists for entertainer for the second straight year. But for 20 years prior, the CMA listed only one solo female — or none — for that trophy.
Likewise, Allen and Mickey Guyton are up for new artist, marking the first time two Black artists have appeared among the final five in the 41-year history of the category, which was known as the Horizon award at its inception. Prior to Allen’s new artist nod in 2020, the only two Black new artist candidates were vocalists who had already been established in other idioms: Ray Charles, a 1985 finalist, and Darius Rucker, who won in 2009. Guyton joins Gabby Barrett and Ingrid Andress as one of three women in the category in 2021, making it the rare year in which just one solo white male, HARDY, competes for new artist.
The interest in diversity is a notable change to recording artist Rissi Palmer, who spotlights the music of Black, Indigenous and Latino artists on her Apple Radio show, Color Me Country.
“I first came into the business in 2007, and this wasn’t even a thing,” says Palmer. “Nobody seemed to be really concerned about it, so it makes me happy that people are actually thinking about it.”
Representation began receiving more attention in 2014 with the establishment of Change the Conversation (CTC), a movement that sought to raise opportunities for women. While female consumers are a primary driver of country consumption, women receive as little as 10% of the spins on country radio in some years, according to research by University of Ottawa adjunct professor Jada Watson. In December 2018, Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart featured zero female voices in the top 20 for the first time since the survey’s inception in January 1990.
One of CTC’s founders, CMT senior vp music strategy Leslie Fram, championed the underdogs.
The network’s Next Women of Country program has highlighted over 85 female acts across its multiple platforms since 2013. Black artists have received support as well, with key appearances in its programming, including Guyton’s receipt of a breakthrough artist trophy during CMT Artists of the Year in October.
“If nothing else, there’s a kid somewhere that has turned on the TV that has had their whole world opened up because they saw it,” says Palmer. “They’ve seen two Black women singing together on a country music program — and not just singing, but being honored. [It says,] ‘This is something that is a possibility for you as well.’ It opens things up.”
The CMA ballot is opening up beyond the entertainer and new artist fields, too. Kane Brown picked up four nominations in his first time as a nominee, thanks to his work with Chris Young on “Famous Friends.” And Brothers Osborne occupied two slots in the first CMA competition since lead singer T.J. Osborne came out publicly. The act is up for a possible fourth vocal duo trophy, and “Younger Me” — a production that T.J. uses as a concert backdrop to talk about his newfound freedom — is a finalist for video.
“There’s definitely a move forward today,” says KRTY San Jose, Calif., GM Nate Deaton. “T.J. coming out like he did is a message. I mean, I know it. He is certainly by far not the only one. I think it gives strength and hope to others.”
Some of the CMA’s sensitivity toward underrepresented populations is likely affected by recent events. The 2019 PBS series Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns illustrated how Black musicians in particular influenced the genre’s origins, though hillbilly and “race” music were separated by marketers. The differences in the genres were amplified through the decades, and many country executives — born long after the divisions were cemented — fully realized the depth of the relationship between country and the blues for the first time by watching the Burns documentary.
“It only takes a short history lesson to learn and appreciate the origins of our genre and to recognize how many voices and influences have been largely erased,” says Fram. “It’s imperative that we insist on making this moment a turning point. We must come together as an industry to ensure a collective commitment to meaningful and actionable change by actively supporting the wide range of artists who are making country music today.”
The death of George Floyd in May 2020, when the pandemic had many home-bound workers glued to their TVs, was also a wakeup call for many who thought — incorrectly, they discovered — that racism was no longer a significant issue. In February 2021, the use of a racial slur by Morgan Wallen tested the industry. He was barred from attending the CMA Awards, though Dangerous: The Double Album could still win and bring his producers to the podium.
Radio stations, after initially dropping him from playlists, have restored Wallen in their rotations, and many believe it is time to accept him fully back into the public fold.
“I think it’s old news,” says Deaton. “If you don’t want him to be nominated, then don’t nominate him. But if he is nominated, it’s over and everyone moved on.”
But banning Wallen from the awards isn’t just about the artist. Stripping him of the opportunity to perform, walk the red carpet or accept an award is a statement by the industry to consumers and creatives from underrepresented constituencies that they are recognized and valued by country music’s leaders.
More female, Black, Latin and gay artists are finding openings, and that’s modestly represented in the current CMA ballot. Much of the country fan base has, like the industry itself, become more sensitive about social inequities and is likely to respond to talent from any source.
“It is an audience that values family and relationships and friendships,” says Loba. “There are so many good people in our genre that the more we expose this audience to those not exactly like themselves, the more they will realize what they have in common with them.”
The uptick in diversity in the CMA ballot represents country’s increasing concern with equity. But the current interest is less significant than the long-term results.
“This is a step in the right direction,” says Palmer of the ballot. “I’m hesitant to say that anything has changed for good, because we won’t know that until we’re a little bit further down the road, but I’m hopeful.”
This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter, which features the latest airplay, sales and streaming charts along with compelling analysis of market trends and conditions. All for free. Click here to subscribe.