Here’s Why Luke Combs Won the CMA for Entertainer of the Year
Breaking down winners of entertainment awards can become as much about why the other nominees lost as it is about why the winner won, but this article won't do — ah, what the heck! Political candidates step back and wonder what else they could have done. Why shouldn't country candidates?
Carrie Underwood, Morgan Wallen, Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton were the other four nominees for the 2022 CMA Entertainer of the Year award. There wasn't an obvious choice this year. The CMAs never reveal voting results, but it's hard to imagine Combs ran away from Underwood, Wallen, etc ...
On paper, Combs and Wallen probably had the best resumes for voters who look at radio/streaming success and touring success first. "Cold as You" and "Doin' This" were Combs' No. 1 hits, with "Forever After All" being an omnipresent recurrent to the point that it won BMI's Country Song of the Year one night before the CMAs. He also released an album during this cycle and toured. There isn't another artist in the group that hit No. 1, toured and dropped an album. Those are the three tent poles.
Wallen's loss shouldn't be seen as a continued indictment on what he said in February of 2021. Surely some voters withheld votes because of his use of the N-word, but the singer's contemporaries have led the way in welcoming him back to the party. Artists who — when they speak — we listen to (i.e. Eric Church) and several artists of color (Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen) have made it known that the "You Proof" singer has "done the work." The public is still in the dark as to what that work was — and Wallen hasn't given the kind of contrite interview many are looking for him to give — but his commercial success in 2022 and the shrinking number of protesters need to be recognized as a sign. It's no longer fair to claim people are afraid to stand up against him or racism. Right or wrong, one has to recognize that the community has chosen forgiveness.
Wallen lost because A) nobody ever wins on their first try, and B) he's not in an album cycle. The Dangerous album dropped 21 months ago, and he peaked for 10 months after that. Lately, Wallen has just been a really reliable radio presence. Voters simply thought Combs' resume was better.
"That's not a blast — the man has made family his No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 priorities, and that is 100 percent respectable. Voters just don't really know who he is."
On social media, Underwood's fan were most outspoken about why she deserved to win, but many didn't realize her tour isn't (or technically, shouldn't be) considered for this year, as it started after the eligibility window closed. Her Las Vegas residency was a mesmerizing spectacle, and she dropped Denim & Rhinestones in June. Combs' win in the Album of the Year category proved to be a signal that he'd hold an edge for Entertainer, although neither album met the high bar their previous albums set commercially.
Stapleton's continued miss in this category can be better explained when we turn to the emotional part of this argument. Lambert — while deserving — was probably the second-best choice within her own record label group, Sony Music Nashville. Palomino also earned an Album of the Year nomination, but — like Underwood — she may have felt the winds shifting when Combs won.
There is a lot of room for debate within everything stated above. A case could certainly be made that Underwood or Wallen had a better-on-paper resume, but it's hard to argue Combs didn't have a deserving list of accomplishments. In the end, people vote with their hearts, and lately, CMA and ACM voters seem to be voting for candidates with the best story. Lainey Wilson's big night is a great example of that. She is deserving of New Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year, but the fact that everyone loves her (and she's suffered recent tragedy) surely tipped the scales.
That's true for Combs as well. He's shared his story in 2022 and has been eager to talk about his new baby boy. Of the five nominees, no artist has done as much to cement a relationship with country radio (a large voting block) than Combs — in fact, he was the only one of the five to make the rounds during CMA Radio Row, an annual junket of top radio and streaming companies nationwide. For many, it felt really, really good to vote for Luke Combs (and Wilson, and Cody Johnson, and Carly Pearce, all of whom have followed the same path).
Stapleton could win this award every year if he did the same thing. That's not a blast — the man has made family his No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 priorities, and that is 100 percent respectable. Voters just don't really know who he is, so when faced with voting for the guy you know and the guy you don't know, who do you choose?
Underwood fans are right in being angry that she's never won a CMA for Entertainer of the Year, but she's had a much better case in previous years when she did all the things an EOY does, plus the interviews and hosting the dang thing. Expect her to be nominated in 2023, and if she notches an album-defining hit song and lowers her guard a bit, she'll be a favorite. That's not pandering. It's recognizing that awards shows are a game, and you can't win if you don't play.
One last point, and I promise this is a broad point, not one aimed at any specific artist: it's becoming more and more obvious that doing round after round of interviews can bring tremendous anxiety to certain artists. It's really difficult to walk into a room and answer an unpredictable batch of questions from journalists and radio personalities of varying levels of professionalism. I don't want to suggest anyone should just "suck it up," because that's worse than insensitive. There are dozens of creative ways to introduce oneself to the country community, including many that require little unpredictability. In country music — more than any other genre — how we feel about you matters just as much as how we feel about your music.
Country Stars Walk the Red Carpet at the 2022 CMA Awards
Gallery Credit: Sterling Whitaker