It’s often said that you never forget your first time, and that’s certainly true for a dozen inaugural Academy of Country Music Awards nominees.
Had things gone as planned, CBS would have telecast the awards on April 5, and those artists making their debut appearance on the academy’s ballot — including Morgan Wallen, Gabby Barrett, Riley Green, Cody Johnson and Tenille Townes — would already know if they could move from first-time ACM nominee to first-time ACM winner.
Instead, the disruption of the COVID-19 coronavirus leaves those artists in limbo for an additional five months, with most of them waiting until Sept. 16 to find out if their name is in the proverbial envelope.
The glass-half-empty version of that scenario is that the winners are blocked for almost half a year from being named the victors. The glass-half-full view is that all of those nominees — whether they win or not — have extra time to be billed as current contenders. That’s a marketing opportunity that the academy is poised to use.
“The ACM is looking at a variety of digital initiatives that can support some of the nominees during the summer, a ‘road up to the ACMs,’ if you will,” says ACM CEO Damon Whiteside. “We want to support the artists. In the long nominations window, our goal is to create some ways that we could get artists to engage with fans and lead up to the Sept. 16 broadcast. It’s something on our radar, and we had some discussion with our board.”
The ACM, of course, had plenty of other issues to address in the past few weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Safety and social-distancing directives forced a series of alternate plans, covered in depth in an April 2 Billboard piece. Ultimately, the awards were put on hold while the virus rages across the world, and the April 5 trophy ceremony was replaced in the CBS lineup by ACM Presents: Our Country, a two-hour special that leaned on at-home performances of feel-good messages, such as Dierks Bentley‘s “I Hold On,” Tim McGraw‘s “Humble and Kind,” Florida Georgia Line‘s “Blessings” and Luke Bryan‘s “Most People Are Good.”
That uplifted attitude still translates to the first-time nominees, even if the revisions muddled their schedules and changed their TV-exposure expectations.
“I feel really excited and feel blessed and grateful and a bunch of different things all smashed together,” says Barrett.
Those initial nominations are significant in the arc of a career, though artists are often uncomfortable exploiting them and reluctant to campaign for a victory or use a nomination to solicit additional media exposure.
“I don’t want my team to do that,” says Wallen. “It’s kind of pretentious, in my opinion, so we don’t do any of that.”
And yet the nominations mean something. For the first time, Caylee Hammack, Ingrid Andress and HARDY all can be billed as ACM nominees in media stories or when the announcer introduces them at a concert. It’s an additional piece of information that suggests to the audience that the artist deserves attention.
“I’ve done some radio shows and a few more intimate things that that has definitely been brought up,” says HARDY, whose nominations are for songwriter of the year and song of the year after co-writing Blake Shelton‘s “God’s Country.” “And just the word ‘nominated’ — even though I haven’t won one yet, it’s still got a nice ring to it.”
Townes does have a winner’s experience, though not yet at the ACMs. She earned her first Canadian Country Music Association nomination in 2011 and finally snagged four CCMA awards last year. Townes currently lives in a one-bedroom apartment, and flooding during the past year forced her to place a number of her belongings in storage, including those trophies. But she can foresee a time when having them in view might present a little reminder on her darker days that her music is finding a place and making a difference.
“Including them in motivation, I think, is such a cool thing,” she says. “I look forward one day to setting up the house with a music room where those sorts of things can feel more at home, and I can also be able to kind of shut the door to that.”
While the ACM nominations carry weight with the artists who are being recognized, those first-timers mean something to the business, too. In addition to the aforementioned names — new female candidates Andress, Barrett, Hammack and Townes; new male contenders Johnson, Green and Wallen; and songwriting candidate HARDY — the current list includes The Highwomen‘s Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires, and two non-country acts, Justin Bieber and Lil Nas X, who are in the mix through their collaborations with Dan + Shay and Billy Ray Cyrus. That group represents a mix of artists with traditional country, folk, pop and hip-hop influences in a genre with increasingly blurry boundaries.
“Country is forever expanding sonically and in every way possible,” observes HARDY. “It’s super cool that everybody can find a place in [it].”
Thanks to the ACM expanding its calendar to find a place for its show, none of those new nominees will forget their first one.
This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.