For the network’s annual Artists of the Year telecast, taking place tonight (Oct. 18) in Nashville, CMT has elected not to hand out any actual trophies on stage, in deference to the hurricanes, fires, and mass shootings that have taken a toll on the national mood and cast the distribution of celebrity honors in a more trivial light. The idea is that the five country stars being celebrated will celebrate the resilient American spirit instead. It won’t much matter if there’s less attention paid on the special to listings of accomplishments, anyway: Fans of the genre don’t need much reminding why Chris Stapleton, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Florida Georgia Line, and Jason Aldean are being put in the CMT spotlight.
The ACM Awards have crowned Aldean entertainer of the year for the past two consecutive springs, and he has a good shot at it when the CMAs hand out their version of that pinnacle award in November. The first three songs from his latest record, “They Don’t Know,” all topped the country radio chart, with a fourth, the album’s title track, looking to soon follow. And Aldean has a touring drawing power as reliable as anybody in the genre, which is why he was headlining when tragedy befell Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest Festival. If there was any question of that trauma casting a pall over him as a performer, it was quickly answered when he opened “Saturday Night Live” the following weekend with Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” In that “SNL” appearance, as in his new single, he was acting not just as a potential agent of healing but a potent ambassador for rural America.
Florida Georgia Line has crossed a lot more lines lately than just the state one in their name. The duo’s collaboration with the Backstreet Boys on the country radio chart-topping “God, Your Mama, and Me” blossomed into a full-fledged “CMT Crossroads” episode. The duo has guested on pop tracks by the Chainsmokers and Hailee Steinfeld, and took Nelly out as opening act on a 2017 tour. All this cross-genre friendliness has made the pair country’s biggest streaming act of the year. While No. 3 in the overall BuzzAngle Music country rankings, FGL is right at No. 1 in audio streams for the year’s first three quarters (with 571 million) and also No. 1 in video streams (212 million). In other words, much bigger than you and your mama, if not quite God.
Luke Bryan has become quite the familiar TV personality, making the leap from co-host of the ACM Awards every spring to a looming stint as judge on the resurrected “American Idol.” But they do love him on the radio, too: In BuzzAngle Music’s year-to-date ranking, he is the fifth biggest artist overall for music consumption in 2017, but No. 1 when it comes to radio spins, with a staggering 760,000 airwave plays in the year’s first three quarters. He’s also at No. 2 in audio streams, with 501 million. If fellow CMT artists of the year Aldean and Stapleton don’t do a lot of smiling, that’s OK — Bryan, country music’s friendliest face, has enough grins for all of them.
Keith Urban is at that point in his career where at least a little bit of fan fatigue ought to be setting in. Instead, his latest album, “Ripcord,” made for a serious case of Urban renewal. Of the five radio singles released from the album, two made it to No. 2, and the other three went all the way to the top. Among those that went all the way was the ballad “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” which already seems like a modern standard. What came next was colored red-hot — a frothy, old-school duet with Carrie Underwood, “The Fighter,” that played out in multiple joint awards show appearances and never got old. It really is true: Nice ganjo-ists finish first.
As for Chris Stapleton: There’s longevity in that beard. Some figured he might be a flash in the pan — albeit a very welcome flash in the pan — after a CMA Awards appearance with Justin Timberlake three years ago made his sales skyrocket overnight. And how many country stars have ever become true titans without generating top 10 hits at country radio? Yet Stapleton remains the unlikely phenomenon of the decade in the genre. The Southern-rock-country-blues belter is far and away the top country artist of 2017 in BuzzAngle’s year-to-date ranking, even though he only ranks 55th in radio spins. With 735,000 in pure album sales in the year’s first three quarters, 1.2 million in singles sales, 322 million audio streams, and 149 million video streams, Stapleton is the brilliant cult artist you still can’t believe accidentally became a wildly beloved superstar.