As women struggle to have their voices heard at country radio, the Country Music Association is proudly proclaiming its support for female artists at its 53rd Annual CMA Awards, set for Nov. 13 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena and airing live on ABC. This year’s theme: a salute to the women of country music. After 11 years of co-hosting with Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood once again will helm the broadcast. This time, though, she has enlisted special guests Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire.
A spirit of solidarity has swept the women of Music City, with arena headliners like Underwood and Lambert rounding out their tour lineups with all-female acts. Other leading women artists have called out the lack of female inclusivity on country radio, as well as its trickle-down effect in the streaming age. In September, Martina McBride criticized Spotify’s country algorithm after she was unable to easily find suggestions for female country artists to add to a playlist. “It took 14 refreshes until one song by a woman came up,” McBride told Billboard then. “I was shocked.”
It was time for a change, says longtime executive producer Robert Deaton. “We have one chance in history to be able to bring these three iconic women together,” he says. “This is a moment that’s not going to come back.” Both Deaton and CMA CEO Sarah Trahern have nothing but praise for Paisley and Underwood’s tenure, but Deaton notes: “[After] 11 years of nine-minute-long monologues, we were starting to feel [like], ‘Hey, this is getting harder and harder, and we want to go out on top.’ ”
Each year, the CMA’s 7,400-plus industry professional members select nominees and winners. Serendipitously, 2019’s nominations highlight the tremendous range of the genre’s female talent that has charted over the past year. Maren Morris leads all contenders with six nods, including album of the year. And after no women were nominated in the entertainer of the year category for the past two years, Underwood returns as one of the five finalists. Also, for the first time in CMA Awards history, women are nominated in all categories (except male vocalist), including musician of the year.
Surprisingly, one of the genre’s top breakthroughs, Kane Brown, earned no nominations, despite his sophomore LP, Experiment, which opened at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200 last November. Brown has yet to earn a single nod, even for new artist of the year. Elsewhere, Luke Bryan failed to garner an entertainer of the year bid for the first time since 2012. “Every year, we discuss omissions from the final ballot. It’s tough, because our voters can only choose five nominees in each category. Whom would you kick out?” says Trahern. “All of this year’s nominees are more than deserving but, of course, there are artists, songs and albums that didn’t make the ballot.”
Deaton, who grew up playing guitar in bands, often draws on his own background to connect with performers. “All of the artists that I work with know that when I’m talking to them about an idea, I will sing their part to them,” he says. “I’m [not] embarrassed to sing in front of Carrie Underwood. It’s just part of the creative process.”
Deaton has worked out of the CMA office since 2016, which facilitates the sharing of ideas and makes the “TV group uniquely integrated in our day-to-day operations,” says Trahern, but also leads to some privacy concerns. “We actually put extra soundproofing around his office, not because of his singing, but because he would blast music year-round,” she says. “We kept the Beyoncé and Dixie Chicks [2016 CMA Awards duet] pretty secret, but a couple of the [staffers] were like, ‘Is Beyoncé on the awards show? Because Robert keeps playing Beyoncé over and over when we walk by his office.’ ”
As usual, expect the ceremony to include some of today’s top stars outside of the country genre. “That’s an important part of our show. Some people always want to [say], ‘Country music doesn’t have to have a pop act in order to be important.’ That’s not what it’s about at all,” he says. “It’s about inclusivity in music and opening your arms to someone else that organically loves our music — whether it be Beyoncé or P!nk or Ariana Grande — for that one moment.”
As country continues to expand its international imprint through, among other efforts, the CMA’s participation in the C2C: Country to Country Festival across the United Kingdom, the CMA Awards are realizing their true global footprint: The telecast will air in 37 countries this year, including on broadcast TV in Germany, Switzerland and Austria for the first time in 20 years via BMG’s sister company RTL. (The German TV channel also has licensed properties including CMA Fest and CMA Country Christmas.)
“One in 8 people in Norway saw our awards show last year,” says Trahern, noting that the CMA Awards serve as a calling card for June’s CMA Fest, which draws 10% of its 88,000 daily fans from overseas. “That’s the magic of having a TV show that can help put a face with the names overseas.”
Though the CMA Awards won its time slot in 2018, ratings declined from previous years. It’s a trend that has swept the space recently, with many shows retooling their programming to harness digital and social engagement. The team doesn’t judge itself on the numbers “per se,” says Trahern. “We’re keeping pace with the trends in TV, and we’re producing the best kind of show that will appeal to the linear TV audience.”
Other measurements have equal, if not greater, value, according to Deaton. “We have to ask, ‘Are we moving country music forward?’ ” he says. “Are people talking about the show a week prior, and are we winning in our time slot? Are we raising digital sales streams the week after and, socially, a week after, are people still finding the performances? The answer to all that is yes.”
The CMA Foundation
The organization’s charitable arm has raised $25 million for music education in the U.S.
Since the CMA Foundation launched in 2006, the Country Music Association’s charitable arm has raised $25 million to help keep music education in classrooms across the country. The majority of its funding comes from CMA Fest, Nashville’s four-day country music festival, where all artists donate their time. The 2019 event, held in June, raised $2.2 million.
A music industry leader in philanthropic giving, the organization’s mission is to make sure every child has the opportunity to participate in high-quality music education. Executive director Tiffany Kerns says that each year, her team is getting closer to achieving this goal.
“It is my responsibility to make sure that we are making great investments because we have hundreds of artists that are showing up at CMA Fest every year, giving us their time at no cost,” says Kerns. “We’re actually moving the needle so our next generation can thrive. What other genres can say, ‘We’re stepping up, and we’re supporting one cause as an industry?’ ”
One milestone this year is a newly inked partnership with Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation to conduct assessments that will better ensure that schools get the resources they need, whether that means instruments and equipment or professional development for teachers. The approach will allow staff to “get into the underbelly of why something is or isn’t working in a school system as it relates to music education,” adds Kerns. “Over the last decade, we’ve stepped back to make sure that we’re not misrepresenting the music education community. We’re able to speak their language and also speak through them.”
— ANNIE REUTER