By Amanda Wicks
At this year’s 10th Annual ACM Honors, the Academy of Country Music will institute a yearly tribute for one of its most legendary musicians, Merle Haggard. The ACM Merle Haggard Spirit Award will go to a recipient who represents Haggard’s “singular vision in carving an indelible path in country music.”
ACM Board President Ken Tucker said in a press release, “Merle passed shortly after our 2016 awards show and after this year’s Special Awards were announced. That said, there was simply no way the Academy could hold what may be its most heartfelt event—ACM Honors—without creating a lasting way to acknowledge his legacy. Celebrating and encouraging artists whose work echoes Merle Haggard’s indomitable spirit is beyond fitting. On behalf of the board, and with the blessing of his family, we are thrilled to create this important honor.” The very first recipient has yet to be announced, but here are five strong contenders to receive the very special award.
5. Chris Stapleton
Stapleton has been around in the business for a while, but it took his 2015 solo album Traveller to catch people’s attention. From his trademark vocals, which can hold a note like nobody’s business, to his intimate and personal songwriting, Stapleton shows that mainstream country doesn’t have to be a one size fits all experience.
4. Zac Brown
Brown isn’t opposed to taking a stand even when it’s not exactly a popular opinion. In 2006, he challenged the band Lost Trailer when they recorded and released his single “Chicken Fried,” despite his request they contain that version to their album. It was a move that seemed sure to sink him, but he overcame it and arose to even greater popularity thanks to his big band approach to country music. He’s got a devil may care approach that proudly follows Haggard’s spirit.
3. Miranda Lambert
It’s wrong that Lambert is the only female on this list, as there are several big names who should be included, but she’s definitely the first female who deserves the Haggard Spirit Award. Not only has she continued to earn ACM’s Female Vocalist of the Year award seven years running, but she’s a throwback to the kinds of female country singers who weren’t shy about writing songs that showed off their darker moments. She’s an honest and refreshing voice helping to push back against the polished perfection expected of female singers in the industry.
2. Eric Church
Possibly one of Haggard’s biggest fans, Church has admitted what a big influence the musician has had over his style. In 2006, he was kicked off Rascal Flatts’ tour as the opening act because he played too long. From there, Church felt marginalized in the industry for several years, but that forced him to carve his own path, a move Haggard would surely appreciate. It would take a few more years until Church’s 2011 album Chief really launched him to mainstream success, but he hasn’t looked back.
1. Blake Shelton
A fellow Okie, Shelton deserves the award for more than sharing a state with Haggard. He’s been an outspoken musician, never shying away from sharing his true opinion about music, politics and more, even if it’s not well received. But more than that, when it comes to his music, Shelton has been a staple in the industry for years, consistently releasing hit after hit. In fact, he’s got so many he released his second–that’s right, second–greatest hits album Reloaded in September 2015.
The official winner of the new award will be announced when the 10th Annual ACM Honors takes place on August 30 in Nashville. It will air September 9th at 9pm on CBS.