On Garth Brooks Stepping Away from Entertainer of the Year

Once again Garth is being Garth, which means ultimately he’s probably doing the right thing and making a good choice. He’s just doing it in the most self-gratifying of ways. His heart is 100% in the right place. But his ego won’t allow him to make an altruistic move without letting everyone else know what he’s doing to vacuum up any residual kudos and attention for himself that he can.

On Wednesday morning (7-29), Garth took to Facebook Live to participate in a news conference where he announced he is taking himself out of the running for the CMA Entertainer of the Year award for 2020. Voting for the first ballot that narrows the field of potential nominees down to 20 or so finished up recently, and the second ballot that narrows the field down to the eventual five nominees is sent out on July 31st. According to Garth, he tried to eliminate himself from contention overall, which the CMA said they couldn’t do since voters get to name whomever they wish initially. So he’s now asking for voters to not vote for him if his name appears on the July 31st ballot, which it likely will.

The setup for this was the 2019 CMA Awards when many believed Carrie Underwood would win Entertainer of the Year with all the emphasis on women placed on both country music in 2019, and the CMA presentation specifically. Eric Church fans also felt it was his year with the type of tour numbers he amassed during the eligibility period. In truth, the award was always likely Garth’s to lose as the guy holding one of the biggest touring purses in all of music. But the expectation was for it to be someone else’s year. When it turned out to be Garth’s once again—his 7th overall and 3rd in four years—a backlash ensued.

“It wasn’t fun. Let’s put it that way,” Garth says about winning the 2019 CMA Entertainer of the Year and receiving so much criticism for it, even though it was the voter’s decision, not Garth’s. Brooks also said that it was one specific tweet he saw from a fan asking why Garth didn’t just step down and allow the award to be the realm of the next generation that secured his decision. “I 100% agreed.”

So this year, specifically wanting to avoid any drama or negative publicity for himself, Garth Brooks says he’s ceding his chances of winning to other artists who’ve never received that opportunity, and not just for 2020, but forever.

Hats off to Garth for wanting to recuse himself for any further consideration. Knowing how much awards and Entertainer of the Year specifically means to Garth, it couldn’t have been an easy conclusion to come to. But to call a press conference, to make such a big deal about it, to basically say that he’s likely to be the shoo-in for the award not just for this year but through 2022—which he underscored in the press conference and the subsequent Q&A—is prime Garth, planting the seed that he probably would win if everything was equal. But now in the event he would have lost anyway, he can say he took himself out of contention in the first place.

Garth Brooks also mentioned that he tried to set up some sort of “Entertainer of the Year Emeritus” designation through the CMA as part of him recusing himself from eligibility, but that never came to fruition, partly due to the CMA cancelling their annual Fan Fest in Nashville this year where perhaps an announcement would have been made. Exactly what shape the “Entertainer of the Year Emeritus” for Garth Brooks would have taken, we don’t exactly know. But Garth said and reiterated that it was his idea, not the CMAs.

The short term implications of Garth Brooks pulling out of the award is it puts artists like Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, Luke Combs, and others one step closer to not only receiving a nomination, but possibly winning it. With so few slots, it most certainly will result in an injection of fresh blood into the Entertainer nomination process.

The other issue this brings up is the continued tying of Entertainer of the Year almost entirely to touring stats and an artist’s concert imprint, which was never what this award was supposed to be about. This is what much of the discussion during the press conference centered around. Touring is certainly a significant factor in the award. But so should be an artist’s cultural impact, their record sales and radio play, perhaps even social media presence and other intangibles like movie appearances. Entertainer of the Year should not be who made the most money on the road or played in front of more fans. It should be about who best defines what country music is in a given year.

And as much as Garth Brooks didn’t really fit that designation in 2019 (if anyone did, it probably was Luke Combs who wasn’t even nominated), it’s also a slippery to ignore artists for the award just because they’re “old” or from a previous generation. Think about how Alan Jackson’s career caught a second win in the early 2000’s after “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” took off, and he won Entertainer of the Year in 2002 and 2003, or when George Strait won it in 2013 in the midst of his massive farewell tour. There should still be opportunities for older artists to win. Age should not be a factor. Total entertainment value should be. Who is to say Garth Brooks won’t be that guy in the coming years? Even as we want to emphasize fresh blood in country, as well as diversity and inclusion, music must still remain a meritocracy and not resort to tokenism, or these awards will lose all of their meaning.

Garth Brooks probably did the right thing here. What he did wrong is when he did win Entertainer in 2019, not at least acknowledging Carrie Underwood and the women of country from the podium, and accepting the award on their behalf, or shouting out Eric Church and his fans for all the work they had put in, and being ahead of this issue as opposed to behind it, which could have put some of that controversy immediately to rest. Garth failed to read the room, and waited 10 months to formally address the issue.

Yet he did finally address it, and as plastic and lacking of self-awareness as Garth can be, it’s hard to question his underlying sincerity. Some may forget, but in 1996 Garth won Artist of the Year at the American Music Awards, and in his speech he refused to accept it, believing Hootie and the Blowfish deserved it more. When Garth Brooks was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012, he first tried to turn it down, insisting Randy Travis and Keith Whitley should go in before him. That’s just the kind of guy he is, even if he tries to roll it into marketing himself later. That’s just not the guy we saw at the 2019 CMA Awards.

So Garth Brooks won’t be the next Entertainer of the Year, which he probably shouldn’t be if we consider Entertainer of the Year more broadly as opposed to simply regarding it as a touring trophy. And if the CMA would work to reset the requisites for Entertainer of the Year to a more broad-based set of accomplishments, the controversies that have raged over some of the recent winners—especially Garth who won it three of the last four years due to touring—would likely be put to bed. The problem is not Garth. It’s the Entertainer of the Year process that weighs touring too heavily.

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