by James Barker, Senior Writer
When the Country Music Association (CMA) nominations opened a couple of months ago, I predicted that the most likely (openly) LGBTQ+ nomination would be Brothers Osborne. Now that the nominations have been announced today, it’s clear that unfortunately, I was not proven wrong. Brothers Osborne are nominated for Album of the Year and Music Video of the Year, but there appear to be no other openly LGBTQ+ artists featured among this year’s nominees.
While it’s good to see Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown among the nominees, representation of BIPOC artists has also moved at an all-too-glacial pace when it comes to the CMA, especially for Black women (congratulations to Mickey Guyton, however, on her long-overdue nomination). To make matters worse, Morgan Wallen’s nomination for “Album of the Year” demonstrates the institution’s lack of care for BIPOC audiences and artists. This is no surprise: this is the way the system has been set up, a point on which Andrea Williams and Amanda Martinez do such vital work holding our feet to the fire. It is incumbent on all of us invested in country music to hold institutions like the CMA to account.
Another fundamental issue is the eligibility criteria that uses Billboard country chart classifications to define and gatekeep country music. This automatically excludes a large number of BIPOC and queer artists who are releasing some of the best country music right now, but due to structural barriers, are not releasing under the ‘country’ marketing category. The CMA’s history of upholding whiteness in the way it developed the industry means that this organization has a particular responsibility to rectify this.
Criteria are not neutral, and have been set and designed a certain way for a reason. For example, the timeframe of charting eligibility for song nominations ignores the fact that songs can take many months to reach their peak. As Jada Watson and Marissa R. Moss have consistently argued: if criteria are a barrier to access for marginalized communities, they should be changed. The CMA have shown that they can adapt their criteria to promote the inclusion of (white) women, so they can make the changes needed to serve BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities if there is institutional will and commitment.
The nominations as a whole feel rather lackluster, with several of the same artists from last year featured and some of the current nominations having not released a new album this year. Despite some good individual nominees, as a collective this pool is poorer for all the unnecessary gatekeeping. In a year of such great albums including Allison Russell’s Outside Child and all the recent fanfare for Black Music Month and Pride Month, this “business as usual” approach in 2021 is a particular kick in the teeth.
Senior Writer James Barker is a PhD student at Newcastle University UK, currently writing a thesis on Dolly Parton. He wants academic work to be engaging and accessible to everyone and to have a real impact on the ground, not least changing country music to be more inclusive. Contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org.