Inside Tonight's Star-Studded CMA Awards Opening With Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton & Reba: Exclusive

Dolly Parton, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Tanya Tucker and Natalie Hemby, 53rd Annual CMA Awards
John Russell/CMA

Dolly Parton, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Tanya Tucker and Natalie Hemby rehearse the opening number for the 53rd Annual CMA Awards. 

“Let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning,” Martina McBride will belt on Wednesday night (Nov. 13), putting the country community on notice, during the the 53rd annual CMA Awards’ powerful opening salute to women artists’ rich legacy and classic contributions to country music.

Billboard exclusively attended the dress rehearsal for a behind-the-scenes look at what viewers will see when the curtain goes up (spoilers ahead).

Early on, executive producer Robert Deaton made the decision to have the show highlight female artists through the decades, starting with the call to have Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton join longtime host Carrie Underwood. The move comes at a time when country radio and many digital service providers are giving scant airplay to female country artists. McBride took Spotify to task in September when she attempted to make a country playlist and it took 14 refreshes before the service recommended a female artist.

Underwood, McEntire and Parton open the medley with “Those Memories of You” (recorded by Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris), before ceding the stage to Jennifer Nettles and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman, who perform Loretta Lynn’s classic “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” 

On the opposite side of the stage, The Highwomen (Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby) and Parton break into Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” before Tanya Tucker joins for her 1972 smash “Delta Dawn.”

Underwood, Parton, Nettles, Fairchild and Schlapman then back up Gretchen Wilson on her signature hit “Redneck Woman,” Crystal Gayle on her timeless “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” Terri Clark on “Better Things to Do,” and Sara Evans on her soaring “Born to Fly” before all join McBride for her seminal “Independence Day.”

For The Highwomen, being involved in a salute to the music that has deeply influenced them was a no-brainer. “It’s really what we made our record around, this theme and mentality, and us being included as the modern era of what country music is is such an honor,” Morris says. “This performance -- with it being a celebration of women and country from decades past to present -- it really sets the tone for the rest of the night.”

Standing alongside women who helped give her voice is emotional for Carlile, who co-produced Tucker’s new album, While I’m Livin’. “As a kid that was raised in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s listening to the stories that some of these women were telling to me about my life and my potential, it means a lot, especially since they touched on some of these specific songs. I just think it’s an incredible way to remind country music of all the powerful things that women have had to say over the years.”

For many of the women who perform their songs tonight that now make up part of country’s bountiful tapestry, it’s a moment to savor -- and perhaps a moment that will leave an impression. 

Evans made headlines in October 2018 when she called out terrestrial radio for its lack of support for her music, as have other female artists with a proven track record at the country format. “I grew up on country music and I made my whole, entire career on country radio and contributed what I believe is a lot of great music to the country genre," Evans told Billboard at the time. "So for my family to watch me sobbing at home because [radio] refused to play the single I released when I’ve worked my ass off and gone to visit every country programmer in America and I feel like I deserve a spot … it’s devastated all of us."

Today, she is still hopeful that change can come as the show shines a light on the issue. "I’m so proud of Robert Deaton for opening the show this way and putting it back in people’s minds," Evans told Billboard backstage. "We’ve had so many amazing songs and artists that are female that are really important to our genre. People think whatever they hear on the radio is what’s available, and that’s just not the case. Women are still being shunned from country radio. [I hope] all the program directors will kind of see this and get the message and they’ll just change regardless of ratings. It has to change. Once they do that, it will become the norm again.”

Starting with rehearsals on Sunday, the sisterhood among the performers has been strong, says Gayle, who relished reuniting with Parton after several years. “We’re all there for each other and you can feel it onstage when you’re around all the girls. They’re there for you and you’re there for them,” she says.

While Wilson wants the audience to enjoy the performance “as a cool event and moment, rather than trying to make a political statement out of it,” she quickly acknowledges that “I would love it if some of the rest of the industry would take a cue from this and maybe we don’t have to go through 50 male songs on the playlists and stations before we find a female, because we’re there!”

The CMA Awards air Wednesday night on ABC at 8 p.m. ET.