Lainey Wilson, Cody Johnson and the Value of a CMA Nominations Breakout

The stars aligned on the current Country Music Association Awards ballot for two artists who may use this voting season to climb to the next level of stardom.

Lainey Wilson, who has never been a CMA finalist before, nabbed six nominations to lead the entire field of candidates for the Nov. 9 ceremony at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Cody Johnson, who garnered only a single nomination three years ago, broke out with four this time, including a male vocalist of the year nod that surprised even his manager. It’s a tough category — 51 of the current 60 titles on Country Airplay feature solo male acts, operating on their own or as part of a collaboration. Making the final five is a big deal.

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“To have Cody’s name on that list speaks volumes,” Durango Artists owner Howie Edelman says. “It shows that people recognize his craft and his natural-born ability.”

The leading nominees invariably make a big splash, though it’s particularly helpful to newer artists. Alan Jackson set the record with 10 nominations 20 years ago. It was a phenomenal accomplishment, though it wasn’t entirely surprising — he had collected 49 of them across the previous 12 years. Kenny Chesney snared a pace-setting seven nominations in 2008 — again, a major achievement, though he had already been listed 23 times.

But when a breakout CMA nominations moment happens early in a career, it’s essentially an announcement to the country world to pay attention. And historically, artists who pile up at least four nods early on tend to maintain success for long periods of time. Just look at a few examples: Glen Campbell, five nominations in 1969; Alabama, five, 1981; Ricky Skaggs, five, 1982; Randy Travis, six, 1986; Vince Gill, six, 1991; Brad Paisley, six, 2000; Kacey Musgraves, six, 2013; and Chris Stapleton and Maren Morris, five apiece, 2016. Then there’s 1990, when the leaders were mostly new acts: Garth Brooks, with five nominations, and Jackson, The Kentucky HeadHunters and Clint Black, who all notched four.

“It’s like the chicken and the egg,” says Black. “It’s really significant for your career, getting the nominations — but it’s because something significant has [already] happened in your career.”

Indeed, the makeup of the ballot guarantees that an artist has to create a compelling piece of work to rack up four or more nominations.

The CMA ballot lists a dozen categories that could feed an artist’s nominations total:

• Musician of the year is rarely in play for recording artists.

• Two general categories, entertainer and new artist of the year, recognize different levels of accomplishment; it’s rare for an act to get nominated in both fields in the same year.

• Four categories parse artists into exclusive fields based on the act’s makeup. An artist can generally appear in just one of the following: male vocalist, female vocalist, vocal duo or vocal group.

•Five categories recognize specific titles: album, single, song, music video and musical collaboration.

Realistically, most artists will only score more than two nominations by releasing titles that their peers respond to, either because of their commercial achievement or their creative value. That’s how Wilson compiled her six nods. She picked up new artist and female vocalist, then another four entries associated with individual titles: song, for “Things a Man Oughta Know”; album, for Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’; and music video and musical event, both for the Cole Swindell collaboration “Never Say Never.”

“I don’t know that I expected her to lead the nominations,” BMG Nashville president Jon Loba says, “but I did feel like she was going to have several, just based on the buzz in the community about her.”

With that expectation, the company scheduled the release of her latest album, Bell Bottom Country, for Oct. 28, knowing that her new role in season five of the Paramount+ drama Yellowstone, due Nov. 13, would create a trio of useful talking points. She received several print and online profiles that might not have occurred were she not a leading nominee. They include bookings from CMA’s broadcast partner, ABC, which slotted her in the Nov. 7 On the Road to the CMA Awards special, and as the musical guest on the Nov. 9 edition of Jimmy Kimmel Live!

“I don’t think I ever saw an album rollout so cohesive around the CMAs,” says BBR Music Group senior vp of publicity Jay Jones, who worked at the CMA from 2013-2017. “A lot of that was completely unpredictable with her having so many nominations.”

The business itself is arguably better at converting early-career nominations bonanzas into major promotion. When the awards debuted in 1967, country radio was much more interested in that news than print media — and broadcasters, of course, only reached people who were listening when they mentioned the CMAs. Now, country gets more mainstream treatment, and artists’ ability to reach their fans directly in real time provides more ways to capitalize.

“When I was playing in the bars, I’d gather addresses and get a mailing list — and once a month, I’m printing out my calendar and licking stamps and envelopes and mailing those out just to try to get 50 people to show up at a bar,” Black recalls. “Now, you reach millions of people through a tweet.”

But the nominations aren’t just valuable in the moment. A major haul becomes part of the artist’s long-term marketing story.

“It goes into the Rolodex of tools that we utilize for all of our PR stuff,” Edelman says. “It’ll go into [Johnson’s] one sheet. If we’re lucky enough to win, then obviously, that’ll speak more volumes, you know. You don’t have to be the eighth person in line to get on the Today show.”

But even if they don’t win, snagging four nominations this early in Johnson’s national career — or six, in Wilson’s case — is legacy-level stuff.

“No. 1, it’s historical,” Loba says. “No. 2, it’s like a Super Bowl ring. You can never take that away.”

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