The 53rd annual Country Music Association Awards took over Nashville on Wednesday evening (Nov. 13), and while the speeches were inspiring and the performances memorable, just as much fun was had off the stage.
From 2019 CMA entertainer of the year Garth Brooks posing for selfies with fans in the audience on a commercial break to Home Free’s Austin Brown asking for autographs on his cast by his fellow country artists on the red carpet, the Billboard team was on the ground at Bridgestone Arena throughout the day catching it all.
Here’s 10 of the best moments you didn’t see on television.
5:00 p.m.: After serenading Billboard on the red carpet with a snippet of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” the CMA musical event of the year, Home Free’s Austin Brown asks Danielle Bradbery to sign the cast on his arm. He’d continue to get signatures from country music’s many stars including Tanya Tucker, Kip Moore, Hardy, Carly Pearce, Michael Ray, Danielle Bradbery, Ingrid Andress, Tenille Townes, Colbie Caillat, Renee Blair and Rachel Wammack.
6:06: Jennifer Nettles strolls the carpet in a gown designed to start a conversation about the lack of females at country radio. Her long pink train had the face of a woman on it with the words “Equal Play.” The front of her dress read, “Play Our F—-n Records Please & Thank You.”
“I wanted to be able to make a fun statement tonight that said, ‘Hey let’s shed some light and take the conversation beyond the applause tonight and talk about the fact that women are underrepresented on country radio,’” Nettles tells Billboard on the red carpet. “What is more womanly than making a statement through fashion and glamour? We’re here to celebrate women tonight, let’s take the conversation forward.”
6:13: Lady Antebellum shared its excitement to be taking the stage with Halsey on the red carpet. Hillary Scott spoke of first falling in love with Halsey’s music upon discovering “Graveyard” while Dave Haywood said he thinks the band’s collaboration will open both artist’s fan bases. “I think it’ll be cool for her fans. Our fans are going to flip to hear us with her,” Haywood said.
6:35: As the red carpet was nearing a close, artists shuffled from Nashville’s Music City Center to the Bridgestone Arena across the street. Billboard shared an elevator with Scotty McCreery, Runaway June and Jon Pardi. While RaeLynn hovered on the outskirts of the elevator, saying she’ll wait for the next one, all the artists urged her to come on in where they caught up with one another, talked bedazzling their outfits, introduced their significant others and went through the metal detectors just like any other person at Bridgestone Arena.
7:30: Lil Nas X stops by the backstage area to pick up his trophy for musical event of the year before speaking to the press with Billy Ray Cyrus. Donning a cowboy hat, boots and bedazzled top, Lil Nas X admits he was humbled by the acceptance of the country community.
“Honestly, I wasn’t sure if this was able to take place tonight,” he says. “[‘Old Town Road’] is the bridging of two polar opposite genres put together. I’m just so happy that it’s gotten respect from both communities.” He later praised the country genre. “There’s so much positivity in this community, I love it.”
8:46: Ashley McBryde picks up her trophy after winning new artist of the year backstage before heading into the press room for photos and questions. “Here’s a trophy to walk on the stage with. You bring it back after,” a member of the Country Music Association tells her.
9:05: Blake Shelton is always the comedian. While visiting the press room, when trying to answer the first question about the power of his CMA Award-winning single of the year “God’s Country” his microphone cut out. “I can tell you that the power of this microphone is shit,” he jokes, before sharing his appreciation for the song.
“The message of the song and simply the title of the song … where we are right now in our culture and in this country, it’s refreshing to see a title like that,” he says. “You don’t hear songs that sound like that anymore.”
9:23: Old Dominion took home the trophy for group of the year for the second time and confess that the band was uncertain about their place in country music until now. “It’s reassuring that we’ll be here,” frontman Matthew Ramsey tells the press room. “It feels like less of a fluke. It feels like we solidified ourselves a little bit. We’re very proud. “
9:32: Shelton returns to the press room with Jeene Fleenor, his bandmate, who took home the prize for musician of the year. Posing for photos with his fiddle player, he jokes, “This is gonna be a great tabloid cover.”
The first woman to be nominated in the category, Fleenor says the night had all of her dreams coming true. “I’m so happy to be the one who broke the glass ceiling. I just saw something, and I went for it,” she says. “I feel like this is what God created me to do and to be living that is the most amazing feeling.”
9:42: Garth Brooks poses to take selfies with fans ahead of his performance of “Dive Bar.” A consummate entertainer, he proved his entertainer of the year status by personally thanking the fans who approached him during the commercial break. At one point, he even took one fan’s phone and filmed the whole crowd and then handed it back.