Nov 8, 2023 - Music

Previewing the CMA Awards

Jelly Roll

Jelly Roll, who's in the middle of a breakout year, performed on "The Tonight Show" last month. Photo: Todd Owyoung/NBC via Getty Images

Nashville hosts the Country Music Association Awards, billed as "country's biggest night" on Wednesday.

Why it matters: There are a lot of country-centric award shows, but the CMAs are clearly on another level. They're Nashville's version of the Oscars, but with a lot more talk about pickup trucks.

  • "It's the report card of the last year in country," says country music expert Beverly Keel, College of Media and Entertainment dean at Middle Tennessee State University.

State of play: Keel tells Axios many of the nominees represent a changing of the guard.

  • "We are seeing the next chapter of country music right now, and that is in every category," Keel says. "There are new names, new styles."
  • Relative newcomers Lainey Wilson and Jelly Roll lead the nominees. (Wilson has nine, and Jelly Roll has five.)

Zoom in: Wilson and Jelly Roll, who are both on BBR Music Group, have emerged as major stars "because of their authenticity, their honesty and their vulnerability," Keel says.

  • "The country audience is ready for music with messages of substance."

What to watch: CMA Awards performances have become water cooler moments over the years. (Remember Chris Stapleton's star-making duet with Justin Timberlake in 2015 and Beyonce showing up to perform with The Chicks in 2016.)

  • This year will feature a Jimmy Buffet tribute with Kenny Chesney and Hall of Famer Alan Jackson.
  • Keel thinks the duo The War and Treaty could be poised for a breakthrough moment on the CMA stage.
  • "I think they're gonna blow people away," she says. "They may not have the name recognition and the radio success of some of the other nominees, but they definitely have the talent."

How to watch: The CMA Awards will air on ABC Wednesday night at 7pm. It will be available to stream Thursday on Hulu.

A CMA Awards trophy. Photo: Donn Jones/Country Music Association via FilmMagic via Getty Images

Entertainer of the Year award

Nominees for the most coveted award at the CMAs, Entertainer of the Year, are Luke Combs, Chris Stapleton, Carrie Underwood, Morgan Wallen and Lainey Wilson.

  • The winner becomes the genre's standard bearer.

This year, Keel says, it's anyone's game.

Combs has won it twice already, and he's coming off another strong year that saw his cover of "Fast Car" hover near the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for months.

Stapleton sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl and recorded the theme song for Monday Night Football.

Underwood has been a dominant force since 2005, and although she's never claimed the trophy in this category, one could argue she should have gotten it many times over by now.

Wallen is a chart-topping juggernaut who with "Last Night" recorded what might be the most popular song of the year across all genres.

Wilson built on an impressive haul at last year's CMAs with hit singles, an appearance in a ubiquitous truck commercial and a recurring role on "Yellowstone."


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