If you’re a Hank Williams Jr. fan, or especially a Waylon Jennings fan, or even a Neil Young fan, probably one of the last things on your mind is that the annual CMA Awards are now less than a month away, scheduled to transpire Wednesday, November 4th from the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. But the Country Music Association has just dangled out a juicy little nugget in hopes you’ll be enticed to tune in.
Announced today in press release fashion, the 49th Annual, 2015 CMA Awards will be opened by newly-signed NASH Icon recording artist Hank Williams Jr. singing Waylon’s interpretation of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready For the Country?” first released on an album of the same name by Waylon in 1976. Hank Jr. will be joined by Eric Church in the rendition, and the song will be the first single off of Hank Jr.’s new NASH Icon album, with further details of the album to be revealed soon.
CMA Executive Producer Robert Deaton says the song and performance “is the perfect narrative for the night. It sets up musically everything that is going to happen for the rest of the show.”
CMA Chief Executive Officer Sarah Trahern adds, “If you don’t see the first 15 minutes of the CMA Awards live, you will be grasping for straws at the proverbial water cooler the next morning. It is that good and it is just the beginning of a great night of entertainment.”
There’s a few layers to peel back here and peruse and digest, the first being why the CMA’s would make this announcement a month out, and in this official capacity. Most of the time we know who will be performing at the CMA’s a week or two before the presentation, and sometimes we know who will open the show. But sometimes the opening is a mystery, or is only known by the public because it is leaked by someone a day or two before the presentation. To make such a big deal about the opening a month out seems maybe not unprecedented, but at least bit unusual, especially when it’s accompanied by such bravado from the CMA executives.
But that’s just where the intrigue begins.
In previous years, the opening performance at the CMA Awards has been the most non country moment of the entire night. Wanting to lure in as many viewers as possible, the open has been a breeding ground for non-country cross collaborations and rock performances rendered by country stars. For example in 2014, it was “All About That Bass” pop star Meghan Trainor opening the show with Miranda Lambert.
But this is where we may be seeing a change in strategy by the CMA’s. These awards shows are all about ratings, and you can tell that is what is behind this opening announcement by the over-hyped quotes from the CMA execs.
The CMA Awards are by far the CMA’s biggest television event of the year. The second is the organization’s broadcast of the CMA Fest’s “Country’s Night To Rock” in August on ABC. This year the ratings for the CMA Fest broadcast were down a whopping 37%, and even more alarming, dropped 29% with the key demographic of 18 to 49-year-olds. It’s all part of a genre-wide ratings slide over the last year as country music gives up its gains and then some that it saw at the height of Bro-Country. 2014’s CMA Awards were also down slightly from the previous year, shedding about 700,000 viewers.
One of the sectors that has been the hardest hit by the ratings slide in country has been radio, partly resulting in the exit of Cumulus Media CEO Lew Dickey at the second-largest radio network in the country, and the letting go of his brother John Dickey, who was the key figurehead behind the company’s NASH brand, including the Cumulus partnership with Big Machine Records, NASH Icon, which Hank Williams Jr. is signed to.
The idea behind NASH Icon is still a good one—to win back a huge swath of country listeners left behind by the genre’s recent moves towards pop, hip-hop, and EDM influences. But the concept has fallen somewhat short, and the Dickey Brothers’ idea of splitting the country format in two has failed. Having Hank Jr. open the awards might be a good way to try and re-integrate country music’s core demographic, while trying to put an economic boost into NASH Icon, which some think might be in trouble with the removal of the Dickey regime. Though appealing to teens and tweens worked out in the short term for country music, the fickle tastes and shifting trends of these young listeners isn’t something country music can rely on in the long-term.
Overall, though this move by the CMA’s is sort of obvious, it should be seen as a potential sum positive for true country music fans. You can still expect ridiculous performances on the night from Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, and Sam Hunt. But even in the list of nominations this year—which included Chris Stapleton, Lee Ann Womack, Kacey Musgraves, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and Maddie & Tae—you could see the CMA actively attempting to be more inclusive to the critical and traditional side of the country divide.
Two years ago, the idea was country music was unstoppable and was poised to take over the entire music world. Now the concern is relying too much on hyper-trends has painted the genre in a corner, and if there’s going to be long-term growth in the future, they’re going to have to be inclusive not just to listeners from other walks of life, but the fans who got country music where it is today.