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Over 60 first-timers up for state’s Country Music Awards

by Sean Clancy | June 4, 2023 at 2:52 a.m.
Sarah Jane Nelson's album "Shelby Park" is nominated for Album of the Year at the Arkansas Country Music Awards. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Kurt Ozan)

David Adam Byrnes leads the nominees for the Sixth Annual Arkansas Country Music Awards -- slated for Monday at UCA's Reynolds Performance Hall -- with five nominations.

Byrnes, who grew up in Sherwood and is now based in Fort Worth, is nominated for Entertainer, Country Artist, Male Vocalist, Album and Video of the Year. Last year he took home top honors for Entertainer and Male Vocalist of the Year.

But close on Byrnes' boot heels is newcomer JD Clayton who, along with Erin Enderlin, has four nominations. Clayton is among more than 60 first-time nominees this year, according to Charles Haymes, Arkansas Country Music Awards Inc. vice president and, along with Ashton Gill, co-host of the show.

Clayton is from Fort Smith and now lives in Nashville, Tenn. He's up for Entertainer, Americana Artist, Male Vocalist and Songwriter.

"It's pretty surreal," says Clayton, whose latest album is "Long Way From Home," which came out in January. "I've never been up for any kind of award in music ... Being recognized by your home state is a big deal, and I feel really honored."

(Enderlin, who is from Conway and now lives in Nashville, is accustomed to taking home Arkansas Country Music Awards trophies. She has won five consecutive Songwriter of the Year awards and has 12 wins overall, including Entertainer in 2021 and Female Vocalist in 2019. This year she's nominated in the Entertainer, Country Artist, Female Vocalist and Songwriter categories.)

Also included in that list of newbies is Central Arkansas five-piece band Midnight South, who are nominated for Entertainer and Vocal Duo/Group.

"It's pretty insane that they included us in the mix with all these artists," says Midnight South bassist-vocalist Jeremy Castaldo. "It's very humbling. We've only been around for 18 months, so it was just a shock ... We're all getting suits and we're going to do it up right."

Singer-songwriter Sarah Jane Nelson's latest LP, "Shelby Park," is in the running for Album of the Year. Nelson was born in Little Rock and spent part of her childhood in Benton, El Dorado and Star City before moving to Monroe, La., with her family. She has been nominated in the past, including for Female Vocalist in 2021 and Album of the Year in 2022 for "I'm Not Broken."

Nelson, who has also acted in plays and Broadway musicals, co-produced "Shelby Park" with Jamie Tate.

"These last two records have been super special for me," she says. "They're very vulnerable, but I like it that way. I spent years telling other people's stories as an actor and now, though not all of my songs are autobiographical, they are definitely coming from a very real place."

Being nominated for an Arkansas Country Music Award, she says, "is a huge honor ... I love Arkansas and I love being part of this event that celebrates the incredible talent that comes from the state."

In all, there are nominees in 26 categories that also include Inspirational Artist, Acoustic Act, Radio Station, Venue, Young Artist, Music Producer, Publication/Blog/Podcast and more.

See for a complete list of categories and nominees.


Enderlin, Byrnes, Clayton and Midnight South are among the artists scheduled to perform during Monday's ceremony. Others on the bill include Linda Davis, Louise Mandrell, The Blackwood Brothers, Sharon White, Ben Haggard, Lance Carpenter, Mae Estes, Tyler Kinch, Adam Hambrick, Sylamore Special, Trey and Lexi Pendley, Blane Howard, Cliff & Susan, Pam Setser, Grace Stormont, Keith Symanowitz, Danny Dozier, Roger Fountain, The Bilderbacks, and Josie Hargis.

Clayton says he's leaning toward performing "American Millionaire," a track from "Long Way From Home." Midnight South will play their track "Better Than a Country Song," Castaldo says.

Each year the awards show celebrates Arkansas' rich country music history with its Lifetime Achievement recipients. The 2023 class is made up of Albert E. Brumley, Irby Mandrell, Barbara Fairchild and Reggie Young.

Brumley was an influential gospel music composer who wrote "I'll Fly Away," "I'll Meet You in the Morning," "Turn Your Radio On" and others. He worked at the Hartford Music Company in Sebastian County from 1926-1931. Mandrell, who was born in Hot Springs, was the father of performers Barbara, Louise and Irlene Mandrell. He was also Barbara's manager.

Fairchild is from Knobel in Clay County and recorded the 1973 hit "Teddy Bear Song" along with "Kid Stuff," "Baby Doll" and others. Guitarist Young was raised in Osceola and played on records by Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, George Strait, John Prine and more.

"This year's award show is going to be yet another good one," says Haymes, who is also a country music historian and journalist. "With 65 first-time nominees in the regular categories and four very deserving Lifetime Achievement recipients, I think it's going to be really good."

He also notes that the event has continued to grow, especially judging from the entries that have to be whittled down by the selection committee.

"There are five nominees per category, but the selection committee has more and more each year to select those five from. Some of those categories are really deep. It's grown really nicely."

  photo  Fort Smiths own JD Clayton is up for four awards in the Arkansas Country Music Awards, including Entertainer of the Year.
  photo  David Adam Byrnes leads all nominees with five nominations at the Arkansas Country Music Awards.
  photo  Erin Enderlin has four nominations at the Sixth Annual Arkansas Country Music Awards, including Songwriter of the Year, which Enderlin has won five times.
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