CMA Awards nominees: Snubs and surprises, from Brad Paisley to Kelsea Ballerini

For country music fans, poring over the list of nominees for the 2020 CMA Music Awards can be a swift series of highs and lows — from “Way to go, Gabby Barrett” to “What more does Brad Paisley need to do for you people?” in a matter of seconds. It didn’t take long for us to make our own list of folks we’re pleasantly surprised to see, and others whose absence is hard to ignore.

Snub: Brad Paisley

If Entertainer of the Year is an award for who’s done the most to bring a smile during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, then Brad Paisley should be at the top of that list. Paisley’s crashed Zoom calls that ended in ear-to-ear grins from small-town teachers and front line workers. He fed hungry families in Nashville with the early launch of free local market The Store and performed multiple times on the audience-free Grand Ole Opry (the latter behind a new single, “No I In Beer”). And he’s delivered brews to Black and white friends pleading for unity in their neighborhood. Not too bad for a guy stuck at home. 

Surprise: Gabby Barrett – ‘I Hope’

Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope,” one of the standout songs on terrestrial radio in 2020, gets a recognition it deserves: Single of the Year nomination. Only a few debut singles rise to be recognized among the best in a year, and even less hit this dang hard. The 20-year-old “American Idol alum struck a “Goldmine” (and dug deep enough to reach Platinum) with “I Hope,” a scorching revenge anthem — that Barrett self-released in 2019 before signing to Warner Music Nashville and reissuing the song behind a label — worthy of being shouted at top volume by anyone who’s felt wronged. 

CMA AWARDS: Miranda Lambert, Luke Combs lead 2020 nominations

Snub: Kelsea Ballerini 

A handful of artists who released music during the 2020 CMA Awards eligibility period — Jason Aldean, Kane Brown, Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, Kenny Chesney and others — remain absent from this year’s nomination list. Kelsea Ballerini — one in a new fold of mainstage country music stars in the new decade — received zero nominations following the March release of her anticipated third album, “kelsea.” The album pushed Ballerini’s personal storytelling and stretched her pop crossover songwriting, enlisting co-writes with Ed Sheeran and collaboration with Halsey. 

“(The) last time this happened, I wrote homecoming queen the next day about the feeling,” Ballerini wrote Tuesday morning on Twitter. 

“Something beautiful will undoubtedly come from the current disappointment. nonetheless, congratulations to my friends & peers that got nominations. proud to be a part of the country family, always.”

Snub: Tanya Tucker

An incredibly resurgent year for the 61-year-old country singer included rave reviews across the board for “While I’m Livin'” — her first original album in nearly 20 years. The album and standout track “Bring My Flowers Now” also earned Tucker her first two Grammy Awards of her career.

RELATED: Nearly five decades since her breakthrough and Tanya Tucker finally headlines the Ryman Auditorium

But those efforts have gone unacknowledged on this year’s CMA ballot, even after Tucker was a prominent part of the female-driven opening number at last year’s awards show.

Surprise: Ashley McBryde

Perhaps no artist has gained more ground on this year’s ballot than Ashley McBryde. One year after she picked up the award for New Artist of the Year, the singer-songwriter is a first-time nominee for both Female Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year. No surprise these honors arrive in the wake of her compelling and highly personal 2020 effort, “Never Will.” 

RELATED: Ashley McBryde’s new album is compelling. So are the stories behind it.

Snub: Kacey Musgraves 

Why shouldn’t Kacey Musgraves compete for Entertainer of the Year? Sure, she isn’t on a new album cycle (nor are 2020 nominees Carrie Underwood, Eric Church or Keith Urban), but it could be argued that few artists do more to represent the artistic depth, inclusion and global success that country music can showcase in 2020. After winning Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 2019, Musgraves expanded her “Oh, What A World” tour to multiple nights at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and a capacity performance at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville; she released a star-studded holiday special via Amazon; opened a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit; and represented Nashville (as did Urban) during the expansive “One World” fundraiser in April — all while continually utilizing her platform to recognize those who believed to be undeserved or ignored.

Snub: Sam Hunt

Luke Combs is the first new face in the mix for Entertainer of the Year since 2016, when Chris Stapleton joined the club. But another next generation star was wholly ignored this year. There isn’t a single nomination for Hunt, who scored the third biggest streaming week ever for country album with “Southside” (Combs is the record-holder).

Only four albums — in any genre — were certified platinum in the first half of the year, and “Southside” was the only country full-length among them. It even earned a decent score from the critical tastemakers at Pitchfork (7.5). It’s no secret that mainstream country is dominated by male singers these days, and even though Hunt has a ton of tough competition in that space, his complete absence on the ballot is pretty glaring.


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