Music

They’re Ba-a-ck! ACM Welcomes New Group and Duo Nominees After a Lengthy Absence

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Neon Union, Restless Road and Tigirlily Gold are all nominated for the first time in the 59th annual Academy of Country Music Awards. But their arrival on the final ballot marks a return of the new vocal group or duo of the year trophy for the first time in five years.

LANCO took home the hardware when it was last presented in 2019, but it’s been a veritable desert for qualifying acts since then. The ACM requires a minimum of three eligible nominees to field each of its three new artist categories — new male, new female and new group or duo — and while there were duos and groups in circulation during the interim years, they didn’t quite meet the criteria. The key data point was the ACM’s requirement that an artist needed to hit the top 40 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart or in Mediabase. The only act that met that goal was now-defunct Gone West, who reached the top 30 in 2020, but since member Colbie Caillat was already an established artist, the group was not eligible.

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For this year’s ballot, the ACM expanded the criteria to top 50 and — voilà! — three artists made the grade as finalists for the May 16 ceremony.

“That was a really big topic of discussion with our awards voting and membership committee,” says ACM chief of staff/vp of artist and industry relations, board administration and governance Tommy Moore. “At the Academy, we really try to pride ourselves on being on the forefront of inclusivity for new artists and really want to give them the opportunity to shine.”

Not surprisingly, the nominees in the category appreciate that opportunity.

“We had heard through the grapevine that they were bringing back the new duo or group of the year category, but we still thought it would be a long shot to get nominated,” Neon Union’s Andrew Millsaps notes.

The lack of new duo or group options is a glaring reality. The prospects have been so glum during the last four years that even if the ACM had loosened the chart requirement to the top 50 during that window, the industry still would not have mustered three qualifying entries.

Part of that dearth is the nature of the beast. Particularly in the digital era, it’s much easier for a solo artist to make simple videos and post them on YouTube or TikTok and start building a following. The effort required to form a band or duo, schedule rehearsals and plan marketing schemes is far more challenging for an ensemble. And handling relationships — both inside the act and with a larger ring of family and associates — creates more tension, making it harder during the hungry years when meager earnings are split.

“Being a group or duo is such a delicate dynamic,” Tigirlily Gold’s Krista Slaubaugh says. “You can’t just slap two people together and call them a duo. You have to stick it out through the hard years because it’s not always going to be easy.”

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Even filling out the new group/duo field is challenging. To get three nominees this year, the ACM allowed Restless Road into the category, even though it did not have a top 50 single in 2023. It had reached that level in 2022, and the group is currently charting with “Last Rodeo” (No. 58, Country Airplay).

“There’s been a slower rollout of bands, but I’m definitely starting to notice a lot more,” says Restless Road’s Zach Beeken. He cites Flatland Cavalry, which secured its first ACM vocal group nomination this year.

Notably, The Red Clay Strays could have been considered for new group or duo on the strength of “Wondering Why,” which hit No. 18 on the Hot Country Songs chart dated Dec. 30, 2023. But, Moore says, no one submitted them for consideration.

The ACM’s three new artist categories differ from the Country Music Association, which has a single new artist of the year field. And it’s advantageous, since it means more artists get their first major nomination from the ACM. All of 2024’s new group or duo finalists are first-time nominees, and they’ll always associate that with the ACM.

“We try to get them into the fold early on,” Moore says, “and we find that the more we can educate them on the Academy and the charitable aspect of ACM Lifting Lives, the more inclined they are to stick with us throughout the years.”

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Despite their first-time-nominee status, the three new group or duo contenders should feel a bit at home. They all attended 2023’s ACMs in Frisco, Texas, and they will return to the same venue this year, trodding familiar turf as they perform at the ACM Kickoff Concerts and walk the same red carpet. But they’ll be doing it as finalists, which presents its own uncertainties. The winner will perform at the show, though they won’t know who that is until two days before the event. All the acts have musicians on hold in case they’re needed. They’ll also discover, perhaps for the first time, what it’s like performing a truncated version of a song for their peers.

“Obviously, I’d be focusing so much on doing a good job,” Slaubaugh says, “but then you look at, like, Chris Stapleton in the crowd? I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

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