NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The new artist of the year category at the 2014 Academy of Country Music Awards is a primer in Modern Country 101 with three nominees who perfectly capture the genre's 21st century sound.
Pop country crooner Brett Eldredge, rowdy traditionalist Justin Moore and rock country climber Kip Moore each come from very different places as they vie for fan votes leading up to Sunday night's awards show in Las Vegas.
"Country music is as diverse or maybe more diverse than it's ever been," Justin Moore said. "I'm not one of those guys who says we don't need pop country, we don't need rap country, we don't need rock country. It's all good for our format and growing our format and because of that diversity I feel like country music has taken over as the most popular format in music now."
"It would be kind of lame if we all did the same thing," Eldredge said.
Fans winnowed the new artist category to three from an original field of eight and will be allowed to cast votes right up to the 8 p.m. EDT start of the live CBS broadcast. Here's a closer look at each nominated artist, in alphabetical order:
Eldridge is standing in the waters of the Pacific Ocean off the beach in Puerto Vallarta on Thursday as he speaks, marveling at his life. He was in New York two days earlier to appear on "Late Night with Seth Meyers," and is spending 36 hours in Mexico for a beach show before flying to Las Vegas.
"It's one of the only times I'd want to leave Mexico - to go to the ACMs," Eldredge said. "It's just such a wild, fun time."
The 28-year-old comes at country music from a much different direction than the Moores. He grew up not in the South, but in the rural Midwestern town of Paris, Ill., population 8,000-plus, and counts his favorite singer as Frank Sinatra. Both of these facts might have once cast doubt of his country credentials, but not in the age of Taylor Swift - who took Eldredge out on tour last year.
He says it's really not as far from A to B as you might think.
"I was a 14-year-old kid listening to Frank Sinatra and none of my friends were, but I loved him so much," Eldredge said. "That's what made me gravitate towards big-voiced singers. That's what I always wanted to be. ... I looked at people like Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn - he mixes soul with country - and Ray Charles. I love Ray Charles. Just big voices like that and that's where I still try to come from. When I open my mouth I want people to feel something, I want them to be moved like those other guys move you."
Justin Moore is sitting in a hotel in Los Angeles after a six-hour trip out West to perform on Queen Latifah's show. The 30-year-old Arkansas native's thick drawl is authentic, as is a sound that's steeped in both traditional country and 1970s country rock influences. Ten years ago there would have been little argument that Moore's sound is "real country," but those lines have been blurred.
"If I could go make an album that I wanted to make and not worry about what's going to get played on the radio and all that stuff, I would probably make an album that sounded like it came from Hank Jr. in the `70s or Mark Chesnutt in the early `90s, that's what I love. But as an artist in today's climate out there, I'm traditional country, but at the same time you kind of have to mix and match it with what's going on right now, what's happening out there - if you want to have a career where you're relevant."
Moore wears a white cowboy hat and feels it carries a message, one his fans have responded to by giving him four No. 1 songs and buying nearly 2 million copies of his three albums.
Yet this weekend marks the first time he'll appear on a major awards show in any capacity.
"I think with this nomination I learned that it bothers me a little more than probably I let on," Moore said. "It's human nature to kind of get a little disgusted with it when you know people are being nominated that you sell more albums than, that you sell more tickets than. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you and tell you it hasn't bothered me because that would be a bald-faced lie. But nonetheless, I'm incredibly fortunate to have a nomination this year and I'm incredibly excited about it."
Kip Moore says he's at home in Nashville for the first time in more than a month, resting up midweek in an apartment he bought just a few months ago. Until then, he'd lived in a recording studio, reluctant to find a more permanent home as he relentlessly chased his dream and compulsively wrote songs.
The 34-year-old has so many, he could easily record two more albums to accompany a new release scheduled for later this year. His latest songs have a soulful Van Morrison-Motown feel, and he says he's not afraid to channel any far-flung influence into his music.
"I was raised on Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seeger and John Cougar Mellencamp," Moore said. "On the flip side of that, my mom raised me and my mom's favorite was Willie Nelson, and she loved (Kris) Kristofferson. All of those that I just named were all the great American poets to me, and that's what I always try to do from a lyrical aspect. And I love that rock `n' roll side of things."
So do young country music fans, and Moore is following a path laid down over the last five years by artists like fellow Georgian Jason Aldean and Eric Church. To his mind, it's a special age in the genre, with open-minded fans who are embracing new possibilities.
"I like the fact that it's a broad spectrum now because it gave me a chance," Moore said. "In the `90s I might not have had a chance because I don't have a very traditional sound."