This story has been updated (see below).
For 21 years, the Country Music Critics Poll published in Nashville’s alternative newsweekly the Nashville Scene has been one of the leading indicators of critical consensus about a given year’s songs, albums, artists, and performers in the country music space.
Conducted by veteran journalist Geoffrey Himes, it compiled the opinions of scores of critics and journalists in a poll that helped both industry professionals and fans alike navigate the overcrowded music scene to sift through the noise and make sure the best stuff in a give year wasn’t overshadowed. Similar to the No Depression Readers Poll, it became an important year-end ritual.
Whether you agreed with the poll’s ultimate findings or not, it always gave you a good indication of what was best in a given year according to the top ears in the industry, and featured a good mix of both mainstream and independent artists from a more diverse background than country’s major award shows. It was one of the few places critically-acclaimed artists were highlighted on a national scale. The poll also came with a dedicated issue of the Nashville Scene with deeper takes about the results, and takes about the year in country music in general.
But unfortunately, the poll will not happen this year, and under circumstances that have many of the participating critics, and the readers who regularly anticipate the poll, quite frustrated.
The Nashville Scene‘s Music Editor Stephen Trageser sent out a missive to the scores of critics who participate in the poll each year on Wednesday evening (12-1), saying, “We’ve decided to go in a different direction in 2022. To be clear, that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the CMCP; it just won’t be appearing here…We will continue to have a special issue with its own particular take on country music—more details on the inaugural edition of that coming soon.”
However, the abruptness of the decision means that there will not be a critics poll—at least one conducted by Geoffrey Himes—anywhere in 2021.
“As you may have heard, the ‘Nashville Scene’ has decided to discontinue the Country Music Critics Poll,” Himes said to poll voters Thursday morning (12-2). “This sudden, unilateral decision was made against my wishes—even without an opportunity for me to argue on the poll’s behalf. This is a sad development for arts criticism in general and for country music criticism in particular.”
Geoffrey Himes continued, “I would have sent out this note earlier, but I was hoping to find a new home for the poll. Alas, I haven’t succeeded, though I will try again next year. For 21 years, the poll was a terrific arena for thoughtful and emotional arguments about country music. I hope it will have a second life, but its first life was pretty amazing.”
After receiving the email from Geoffrey Himes, Saving Country Music offered to run the poll in 2021, but with the complex weighted scale the poll uses and the sheer number of participants, it wouldn’t be possible to put it together properly for this year. “Knowing how much work is involved in the few remaining weeks, I’ve given up on doing a poll this year,” Himes replied.
Along with finding a new home for this important country music media institution, the next concern is what the Nashville Scene has planned in lieu of the annual poll. Their promise of having a “special issue with its own particular take on country music…” seems to indicate it will not be the wide and diverse polling of country music professionals that the Critics Poll was each year, but potentially include coverage along the same lines of much of the outlet’s daily coverage of country music, which recently has lacked nuance, context, counterpoints, or true country music knowledge, and instead has given voice to poorly-researched and terse Twitterverse takes put in print from a narrowing perspective.
What was so important and valuable about the Nashville Scene‘s Country Music Critics Poll is that it wasn’t just one journalist or outlet’s “particular take,” or even a host of select opinions from a certain segment of journalists. It was all of the opinions from the wide and diverse representation of country music aggregated into one place. It’s where all the opinions on country music could come together in an attempt to build consensus.
Whatever the Nashville Scene has planned, it’s unlikely to honor that tradition. And hopefully in 2022, the Country Music Critics Poll can find a new home that will.
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UPDATE: After the publishing of this article, The Editor of the Nashville Scene, D. Patrick Rodgers, reached out to clarify why they had chosen to not run the poll with the following statement:
“Following Geoffrey Himes’ Paste column on “Afro Americana” (which has since been heavily edited and redacted), we decided to part company with Himes on the CMCP, and told him he could take it elsewhere if he liked. The Scene will keep on championing quality country music.”
This story has been updated (see below).