Axios Nashville

Picture of the Nashville skyline.
November 10, 2021

Howdy everyone and welcome to Wednesday!

🌞 Today's weather: Sunny with a high of 73.

Situational awareness: Tomorrow is Veterans Day, and we won't be sending a newsletter. Remember to thank a veteran for their service and we'll see you Friday morning.

Today's newsletter is 858 words — a 3.2-minute read.

1 big thing: Country music revs back up

Luke Bryan holding a CMA Award.
Luke Bryan will host the CMA Awards. Photo: Robby Klein/ABC via Getty Images

The return of the CMA Awards tonight to a packed house of fans offers the beleaguered country music industry the opportunity to turn the page after a bruising two years.

Why it matters: The pandemic decimated Nashville's music industry — shutting down tours that fueled the country music economy and leaving hundreds of professionals out of work.

  • Axios recently interviewed some of Music Row's most consequential executives to take the temperature of the country music industry, which revealed Nashville is quietly optimistic about returning to its pre-pandemic normal.

What they're saying: Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern heralded the CMA Awards' return to Bridgestone Arena — in front of fans who will be asked to show proof of vaccination — as "a signifier that we are getting closer to what we all know as normal."

  • "I got goosebumps when I entered Bridgestone for the first time this year during rehearsals," Trahern tells Axios. "Even something as simple as picking up my credential nearly brought me to tears."
  • Jennie Smythe, president and CEO of Nashville-based Girlilla Marketing, calls the CMA Awards a "guiding light for what is possible" in 2022.
  • "They are providing a homecoming, a gathering for people to not only see a great show and watch amazing performances, but also for our industry and community to re-acquaint themselves and shed some of the worry and grief we’ve been holding on to for the last couple of years," Smythe tells Axios.

Yes, but: The genre still faces ongoing questions of racial and gender inclusivity after rising star Morgan Wallen was recorded using a racial slur. Wallen is nominated for a CMA award for album of the year.

  • Country music has seen more women of color emerge in recent years, led by Mickey Guyton. Trahern tells Axios she's excited by country music's "broadening lens."
  • "We have a lot of work to do, but I’m grateful for the progress and commitment our industry has shown to move the genre towards greater expansion and inclusivity."

How to watch: The CMA Awards will broadcast live on ABC at 7pm.

2. Pandemic, radio decline threaten the genre

Warner Music Nashville chairman and CEO John Esposito on the red carpet.
Warner Music Nashville chairman and CEO John Esposito. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Innovation In Music Awards

In Music Row boardrooms, the strategic challenges created by the pandemic have been compounded by the decline of country music's bread and butter: radio.

What they're saying: "Losing a huge radio station in one of our biggest markets should be a wake-up call for the industry," Warner Music Nashville chairman and CEO John Esposito tells Axios. "To ensure the long-term health of our format, we need to adapt to changes in the radio landscape. We also need to … adapt to changes in the tech landscape."

  • "And, after two years in a pandemic, we need to adapt to changes in the touring landscape. These are three key and constantly transforming elements of our industry."

The bottom line: Despite challenges, Music Row execs overall seem optimistic about getting back on track.

  • Warner Music executive vice president and general manager Ben Kline tells Axios that consumption of country music is slightly outpacing the music industry in general over the last year.
  • Platforms such as TikTok and video games have served as new "opportunities for expansion and visibility" for new and legacy artists, Kline says, pointing out TikTok recently lifted the streaming numbers of the old Randy Travis hit "Diggin' Up Bones."

3. Death Row reprieve

Inmate Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman smiling.
Inmate Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman. Photo courtesy of Abdur'Rahman's legal team

Nashville Judge Monte Watkins on Tuesday ordered inmate Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman off of death row after his legal team argued prosecutorial misconduct tainted his 1987 murder trial.

  • The judge vacated the original conviction and accepted a new plea deal that replaced Abdur'Rahman's death sentence with three consecutive life sentences for first-degree murder and other charges.
  • District Attorney Glenn Funk on Tuesday supported the move in court, telling Watkins such actions were justified in the face of "the smoking gun of racial bias."

Why it matters: Court debates over the death penalty typically turn on obscure legal technicalities. This case, however, directly confronts allegations of racism within the criminal justice system.

  • It also puts Funk at odds with state officials who have fought death penalty challenges in recent years.

Yes, but: Watkins initially ordered Abdur'Rahman, 71, off death row in 2019. Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery appealed, and a higher court overturned the deal last year.

  • Tuesday's order attempts to address the issues discussed in the appeals court ruling. It remains unclear if Slatery will pursue another challenge.
  • Spokesperson Samantha Fisher tells Axios the office is "reviewing the judge's order and considering next steps."

Go deeper for more about the case.

4. The Setlist

Illustration of a neon sign in the shape of an arrow reading "THE SETLIST."
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Alice Pearson Chapman, managing partner at MP&F public relations firm, died suddenly Tuesday of a brain aneurysm. (Nashville Business Journal)

Scrappy Nashville SC will be a tough out in the MLS playoffs. (Nashville Scene)

The company seeking to bring NASCAR to the Nashville Fairgrounds struck a deal to acquire the Nashville Superspeedway in Wilson County. (Associated Press)

Mayor John Cooper's office is facing criticism for organizing homeless camp visits. (The Tennessean)

5. Veterans in Tennessee

Data: U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals

There are more than 422,000 veterans living in Tennessee, according to a 2019 estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau.

  • Ahead of Veterans Day, we took a look at when they served.

Nate gives grateful shoutouts to service members and veterans in his family in honor of Veterans Day tomorrow: sister Melissa, brother-in-law Ted, cousin Joe and father-in-law Phil.

Adam is thinking of his family members who served, including his grandfathers Gibson and Francis, and his uncle Rick.