When the Country Music Association hands out the album of the year award for the 49th time tonight (Nov. 4), the contenders will look a little more like a Grammy Award group than a typical batch of CMA finalists.
The CMA “tends to be the most conservative of all the awards shows,” says Universal Music Group Nashville president Cindy Mabe.
But voters stepped out of their usual patterns this year, selecting two albums — Chris Stapleton‘s Traveller and Kacey Musgraves‘ Pageant Material — that, to date, haven’t yielded a top 20 country single. It’s only the second time in history that the hit-driven vote has lofted two standard studio projects into the album finals in the same year without a hit (the -previous year was 2002, when Willie Nelson‘s The Great Divide and Alison Krauss‘ New Favorite competed).
“I never presume to know what people are thinking when they let guys like me have a moment,” says Stapleton, “but we’ll take it.”
In random, highly unscientific polling the last few years, it has become clear that the electorate is thinking of several things when it casts a CMA ballot. Artists and songwriters tend to cast their votes for what they perceive is the best creative work. Voters who have a financial connection to acts understandably tend to support those artists and projects. And executives without a horse in the race often put a premium on numerical measures of success — e.g., ticket sales, chart positions — though there are still decision-makers who favor creativity over commerce.
“I don’t ever believe they have to be separate things, the commerce and something artful,” says Stapleton. “I don’t think they’re that separate. In fact, I think they need each other. They feed each other. If there wasn’t someone having a huge commercial success, guys like me wouldn’t have the -opportunity to do something a little out of the ordinary, because there wouldn’t be money for it.”
The CMA has shown an appreciation for artsy efforts on occasion, though usually in categories with lower profiles. Americana act The Civil Wars picked up three straight nominations for duo of the year during their tenure. And the vocal event and video categories have frequently featured left-of-center entries, ranging from old-school troubadour Junior Brown‘s quirky “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” clip to a Nelson-led musical event, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” that placed rapper Snoop Dogg on the country list.
While album of the year might be the most noticeable departure this year, it’s not the only place where artists who haven’t had typical radio success made headway. Stapleton’s in the running for male vocalist and new artist, Musgraves is up for female vocalist and video, and Lee Ann Womack is a finalist for female. And two Country Music Hall of Fame members, Nelson and Merle Haggard, have a shot at musical event with their album Django and Jimmie.
“This is either a year where everybody’s so sick of whatever they’re sick of that we’re going to see the weirdest batch of winners that we’ve ever seen, or everybody blew off steam in the nominating process and then they’re going to vote for the same old people,” says Shore Fire Media content director Brian Mansfield, formerly a correspondent for USA Today.
The Stapleton and Musgraves albums, in particular, represent something of a balancing statement. While the music that has made it through on country radio has cycled toward edgy pop and R&B in the last year, Stapleton’s project carries a heavy Outlaw-era vibe, while Musgraves’ evinces plenty of 1960s classic-country roots. Their efforts also point to another ideal that’s considered nostalgic in some quarters: They committed themselves to making cohesive albums rather than loading up on potential hits, even though the album format is considered by many to be increasingly irrelevant.
“If you believe that, that’s your reality,” says UMGN’s Mabe. “But the truth of the matter is you can still matter by making a full body of work.”
Stapleton believed that was his best shot. Frequently hailed by his artist peers as the best singer in Nashville, his achingly gorgeous “What Are You Listening To” stalled at No. 46 on the Country Airplay chart in 2013. He reasoned that he was not a typical artist for country radio, the genre’s biggest vehicle for exposure, and told the label he wanted to try a different route.
“Some of the marketing techniques that were in place that work very well for some people don’t necessarily work for me,” he says. “Some of that has to do with my own personal quirks, and other parts of it have to do with the fact that I don’t fit into some part of what we’ve developed as a commercial process. The goal was to find a different way to skin the cat.”
Ironically, both Stapleton and Musgraves cut their albums at historic RCA Studio A, shortly after preservationists saved the building from a developer’s wrecking ball in late 2014. While radio didn’t embrace the first single from either release, Traveller debuted at No. 2 on Top Country Albums, Pageant Material at No. 1, and both projects have found a rabid audience. During Musgraves’ September concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the number of people who sang along with every word of the deep cuts was impressive.
“Some artists are picking up the same fan base across the board, but you look at these two [artists’ followers] and say, ‘These are not the same people that I’m seeing anywhere else,’ ” says Mabe. “I think that that speaks volumes. We’re finding the people that want to hear this music, and they don’t look the same as everybody else.”
UMGN isn’t giving up on either act at radio. Mabe points to Eric Church‘s early difficulties, but notes that 23 radio stations were believers, and they essentially built the foundation for one of mainstream country’s key acts. The right broadcasters, she surmises, could similarly provide the terrestrial building blocks for Musgraves and Stapleton.
Meanwhile, those two are bringing Grammy-like color to one of the CMA’s key categories and providing a balance to the hitmakers in the field — Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean and Little Big Town — who have arrived on the list with a more traditional media approach.
“It’s a really nice mix of very commercial music and stuff that’s right around the edges,” says Mansfield. “What you can take away from the big picture is that there is a lot of good stuff going on in country music beyond what you’re hearing on the radio.”
In the end, the closing line in the chorus of Musgraves’ “Pageant Material” — “I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t” — now sounds prophetic. The determination of Musgraves and Stapleton to follow their own arrows might well be another reason they’re up for album of the year.
“If you go back to the people that changed our lives, they were all true artists, and they followed their own path,” says Mabe. “They might not always have been the easiest to work with or done all of the things that you wanted them to do, but they weren’t going to sell out. They were going to be who they were going to be.”