2018 CMA Awards: Low ratings and low relevance, with a few surprises

Last year I went 4-8 in my annual Country Music Awards predictions, and this year I did much, much worse at 2-12. Either that means I’m much more cynical about what the Country Music Association thinks about country music, or I was just off this year.

Either way, this year provided the right amounts of resigned industry blather (Keith Urban as Entertainer of the Year? Sure, why not. Kenny Chesney for Musical Event of the Year? Ughh) and true-blue, honest-to-Hank surprises (Kacey Musgraves for Album of the year is not something that I predicted would happen, although I thought it was the right move; Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line’s shutouts made my cynical side very happy). 

“Dear Hate” shoulda won this- a rising star collaborating with a genre legend, commenting on real events-but why recognize something meant to honor victims of a tragedy when you can award a song that’s actively about ignoring the world’s problems https://t.co/NC78GWzZy4— Jake Harris 🦃 (@JakeHarris4) November 14, 2018

Much like last year, silence about anything that might have resembled strife in the good ‘ol family country music industry was the gold standard. Garth Brooks, who at this point is the elder statesman of “traditional” country music for this award show, opened Wednesday night’s ceremony with a moment of silence to honor the memory of the 12 people who were gunned down two weeks ago at the Borderline Bar & Grill, in Thousand Oaks, California. The words “gunned down” weren’t used, but rather, those who died as the result of senseless gun violence were “lost far too soon just a week ago tonight.” It echoed last year’s muted response to the victims of the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting (the worst mass shooting in America’s history, until…the next mass shooting).

On the awards side, the CMAs played it pretty safe this year again, with two notable exceptions: Kacey Musgraves and Keith Urban. Musgraves took home the Album of the Year award for “Golden Hour.” Easily the best album in a category that included Chris Stapleton, Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett and Dierks Bentley, “Golden Hour” expanded Musgraves’ sonic pallet while going more personal than the wry Southern sarcasm of her previous two albums. It’s not “traditional” country, but nobody in that category really is. I know, I know, Chris Stapleton is supposed to be the “savior” of country music or whatever, but the rootsy R-n-B of “A Room Vol. 2” sounded like what it was meant to be, which is a continuation of songs that weren’t on “Vol.1.” “Golden Hour” was a cohesive album statement and completely unique to the artist singing it, and incredibly important for young girls.

(A side note on Album of the Year: I was incredibly disappointed to learn that Lee Ann Womack’s “The Lonely, Lonesome and Gone” wasn’t even nominated, which is a travesty.)

Keith Urban’s Entertainer of the Year award, however, was a befuddling surprise. In a category that also included stadium stalwarts like Luke Bryan and Kenny Chesney, golden boy Chris Stapleton and wild card Jason Aldean, Urban was looking like an also-ran, even with the sales of his latest album “Graffiti U.” This category typically goes to the person with the most touring prowess, so I was expecting Chesney to win. Dude’s been crushing venue records left and right, and he’s been donating a big portion of his tour monies and album sales for “Songs For the Saints” to the Virgin Islands. But no, let’s award the song he did that was about actively ignoring the world’s problems and give the Entertainer of the Year award to arguably the least “country” nominee up there. 

This year saw a Country Music Association fighting for more relevance outside of the country music bubble, to mixed results. The ratings, while still owning the night, hit a sharp decline in viewership since 2008, with steady declines from 15.9 million viewers 10 years ago to 10.06 million this year, according to Nielsen. Maybe that’s because the target market doesn’t watch traditional TV anymore (I know I don’t). Maybe it’s because people are uninterested in yet another country music awards show. Maybe all that is a bunch of gloom-and-doom from someone who’s tired of seeing a genre slip more and more into something that (at least, on the radio) doesn’t have much to say about anything.

But I’ll keep saying what I’ve been saying for the last few years: If country music wants to continue to be relevant in unpredictable, genre-bending world, it needs to stop pretending that the industry is a great big family lovefest and acknowledge its shortcomings, and realize that while country music is a tent with enough room for folks of all walks of life and musical backgrounds to fit under, that doesn’t mean that we need to move the tent every time something new comes up. By not taking a stand on something when it counts, you’re not really standing for anything, and the music suffers because of it.

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