The Country Music Assn. announced the nominees for the 45th Annual CMA Awards today and there’s a lot to be gleaned from the nods.

*As opposed to years
when Garth Brooks was head and shoulders and torso above everyone else in country music, there’s a much healthier level playing field these days.  Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton and Brad Paisley each received five nominations, while Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry garnered four apiece.

*The sharing the wealth also points to how strong the touring market is for country artists. Kenny Chesney, who got neglected here despite releasing the fine “Hemingway’s Whiskey” during the July 1, 2010-June 30, 2011 eligibility period, and Taylor Swift can both fill stadiums, Keith Urban, Zac Brown Band, Brad Paisley and Jason Aldean can fill arenas. And that’s not even dipping into the stalwarts like Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, and George Strait who sell out larges venues years after year or artists like Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, whose live audiences are growing every day.  Country probably has the deepest bench of any genre. 

*There remains a gaping hole when it comes to country duos, so much so that the vocal group and vocal duo of the year should be combined. Just as Brooks & Dunn dominated for a decade plus, and the Judds before them, Sugarland is the only true superstar duo in a field that also includes developing acts Steel Magnolia and Thompson Square, long-in-the-tooth pair Montgomery Gentry and the fantastic Civil Wars, who despite living in Nashville, have probably never gotten played on country radio other than as a novelty.

*The CMA needs to define “new artist” more narrowly
.  Luke Bryan, who is nominated here, first hit the charts four years ago. To whom is he new?  He’s had six Top 10 hits. If he’s new to you, you haven’t been paying attention. Eric Church’s first album came out on Capitol in 2006. Why not nominate Swift? Her first album came out the same year as Church’s.

*Blake Shelton’s continued ascension
shows that an artist can have an incredible second act. It was the perfect confluence of events: 10 years after releasing his first album, he earns his first entertainer of the year nod. It’s a build that began a little more than two years ago. He’s been rambling along, doing perfectly well, but the combination of stronger music and dating Miranda Lambert, as her star was also rising, led to the jump from steady mid-level artist to superstar.

*Unlike in the past
, when country shunned artists like Faith Hill who courted pop success, the format is confident enough to embrace artists who prove popular in other formats, primarily Taylor Swift.  Plus, Swift has handled her crossover beautifully without ever abandoning country for a minute.

*There are acts who the CMA voters largely ignored this year, all of whom released albums during the eligibility period: Toby Keith (why should this year be any different?), Darius Rucker, the aforementioned Chesney and Rascal Flatts, who received only one nod this year for Vocal Group. Why does it remain such a clique?

The 45th Annual CMA Awards will air Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. on ABC. Paisley and Carrie Underwood will co-host for the fourth time.

What did you think of the nominations?