For the 53rd annual Country Music Association Awards, held Wednesday night at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, the organization made a pledge to celebrate “legendary women in country music throughout the ceremony” — though the topic of the industry’s much-criticized gender disparity would have been in the air regardless. But in a night of grand performances by the genre’s female leaders, something ended up pushed to the side: the year’s biggest country smash. Here are the show’s notable moments.
1. Women took back the airwaves (for a night, at least)
Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland lit up social media before the ceremony began, appearing on the red carpet wearing a dress scrawled with messages directed at country radio stations, which notoriously minimize songs by women: “EQUAL PLAY.” The awards did make an effort to move country girls to the front. Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood — representing three unique generations of country royalty and three different country styles — were the hosts. One of the night’s most talked-about moments was McEntire’s performance of her 1991 version of “Fancy” as she removed layers of various feathery and sequined outfits. Garth Brooks, accepting his seventh entertainer of the year trophy, used part of his acceptance speech to gush, “If they gave this award for this show tonight I’d have to give it to Reba McEntire’s performance.”
The fiddler Jenee Fleenor — who has played on hits by Blake Shelton, Jon Pardi and Cody Johnson — became the first woman to walk home with musician of the year. Maren Morris led the field with six nominations and won album of the year for “Girl.” Even the shape of the onstage lighting would have pleased Georgia O’Keeffe.
2. Rock stars came out for Kris Kristofferson — but Kris Kristofferson didn’t
The songwriting legend Kris Kristofferson didn’t show up to claim his Willie Nelson lifetime achievement award: He had a show Wednesday night. However plenty were on hand to pay tribute. Kristofferson’s appeal crossed to both country and rock artists — his “Me and Bobbie McGee” alone was performed by Roger Miller, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead. Naturally the collaboration paying tribute to Kristofferson flowed across genre lines too. Sheryl Crow, Dierks Bentley, Joe Walsh of Eagles, John Osborne of Brothers Osborne and Chris Janson all performed the indelible “McGee” together in a raucous performance that split the difference between twang and churn.
3. Kacey Musgraves made a rainbow connection with Willie Nelson
The CMA Awards brought a lot of parings — Pink and Chris Stapleton, Lady Antebellum and Halsey — but few seemed as inspired as the weed-loving musical outlaws Willie Nelson and Kacey Musgraves. Together they performed the wistful 1979 “The Muppet Movie” tune “Rainbow Connection” alongside a keening string section, Nelson’s aged rasp a great pair for Musgraves’ smooth croon.
4. A cross-generational army of superstars painted country’s female history through song
Parton, McEntire and Underwood opened the night with “Those Memories of You,” best known as a single from Parton’s 1987 collaboration with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, “Trio.” What followed was an all-star parade of country stars playing hits that reach back more than 50 years, a nine-minute medley that served as a miniature Ken Burns special. Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town, alongside Nettles, teamed up for Loretta Lynn’s 1971 hit “You’re Lookin’ at Country” as the 87-year-old icon smiled from the audience. The four women of modern-traditional supergroup the Highwomen — Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires — did Tammy Wynette’s 1967 single “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.” And for a classic country coup de grâce, Tanya Tucker emerged for a slinky version of her 1972 hit “Delta Dawn,” accompanied by the Highwomen and Parton.
Gretchen Wilson ran through her 2004 hit “Redneck Woman,” getting to say the line “And I know all the words to every Tanya Tucker song” in front of Tucker herself. The hits and stars kept coming: Crystal Gayle performing the 1977 track “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” Terri Clark running through the 1995 song “Better Things to Do,” and Sara Evans doing her 2000 hit “Born to Fly.” Martina McBride, who closed with her 1994 single “Independence Day,” delivered the home run. A tale of domestic abuse, its soaring chorus was impossible not to ring with greater depth in the age of #MeToo: “Let the whole world know that today/is a day of reckoning/Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong/Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay/It’s Independence Day.”
5. However, you couldn’t hear the biggest country song of the year
The broadcast failed to properly honor the black man who — by certain chart metrics — is responsible for the biggest country song of all time. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” (along with its corresponding remix with Billy Ray Cyrus) is the fastest song to receive diamond certification, the only song in Billboard history to top the Hot 100 for 19 weeks, and the fuse for conversations about who exactly decides what “country” means in the streaming era.
Lil Nas X, rightfully, won the award for musical event of the year. However, the only category where the song was nominated was not presented in the actual broadcast, redolent of the time when the Grammys refused to award its first trophy for best rap performance in 1989 during the show itself. Lil Nas X, who also did not perform, was given a quick acknowledgment as a winner and was featured for reactions when cameras cut to him watching from the audience.
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