After the pandemic caused last-minute changes at the CMA Awards last November, with artists testing positive for COVID-19 and dropping out right up to show time, Wednesday night’s celebration, the 55th annual CMA Awards, felt blessedly normal.
The Nov. 10 awards returned to Nashville’s full-capacity Bridgestone Arena after a scaled-down show at the Music City Center in 2020. There was a sense of relief that, even though the pandemic is still with us, we may have turned a corner with acts back on the road, the biggest names gathering together again, and crowds (in this case, fully vaccinated) screaming again for their favorite artists. “It’s a room full of joy,” declared Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey.
Hosted by Luke Bryan, this year’s show was heavy on performances and gratitude, with a number of moments that proved captivating and showed that country music continues to expand beyond its straight, mainly white male borders. There were historic firsts, including T.J. Osborne kissing his boyfriend before accepting vocal duo of the year with his brother, and Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards singing Guyton’s beautiful song of acceptance “Love My Hair.”
Among the show’s best moments:
As country music continues to struggle with diversity and inclusion, one of this year’s biggest stories was the Brothers Osborne’s T.J. Osborne coming out. The pair, who won vocal duo of the year from 2016-2018, recaptured their title after losing to Dan + Shay the past two years, and T.J. noted, “It’s been a crazy roller coaster of a year for us in so many ways, especially for me emotionally, and to have you all support me, it really does feel like love wins tonight, thank you.” But he saved his larger statement for when the Brothers Osborne performed “Younger Me,” a letter to his younger self that no doubt resonated with any viewers struggling with their sexuality or other hurdles. As T.J. said before starting the song, as a young boy, he never thought he would perform on the CMAs — not because he lacked talent, but “I always truthfully felt it would never be possible for me because of my sexuality to be here and I just wish my younger me could see me now.”
Strength in Numbers
Only a few years ago, it would have been unimaginable that the CMAs would have a performance about empowering Black women through their hair, but Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards delivered an emotional and visual tour de force as they sang Guyton’s “Love My Hair.” With big hair and even bigger voices, they delivered a personal-yet-universal statement about acceptance that brought the audience to its feet and showed country music is at its best when it is talking about real topics.
Bridgestone on Fire
Last year’s entertainer of the year Eric Church turned in a smoldering performance of “Heart on Fire” that included fire rimming the stage and some incendiary guitar licks, but the real pyrotechnics came from Church’s backing vocalist and not-so-secret weapon Joanna Cotten, especially as the two sang together at the end, making it seems as if we’d dropped into a Church show already full-throttle.
The musical circle of life ran deep as Jennifer Hudson, on the Oscar stump for her role as Aretha Franklin in Respect, performed “The Nightlife,” recorded by Franklin in 1967. But the selection also heralded back to its country roots: Willie Nelson co-wrote the song and first released it in 1965. Hudson, who was joined by Chris Stapleton, then switched to “You Are My Sunshine,” which Franklin cut in 1967, performing it first as a slow ballad and then an upbeat handclapper. As Hudson took the Bridgestone audience to church on a Wednesday night, Stapleton had the biggest grin of the night on his face — more so than when he won his four awards — and you could literally see the country artists’ jaws dropping as Hudson hit and held rafter-raising notes in the evening’s most dazzling vocal performance.
The New Reba and Linda
Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde started slow but ultimately squeezed a grand dollop of melodrama out of “Never Wanted to Be That Girl,” an updated version of Reba McEntire and Linda Davis’s 1993 smash “Does He Love You,” with McBryde playing the (at-first unwitting) adulteress and Pearce playing the cheated- upon spouse. Even their color scheme — McBryde in black and Pearce in white, like in the video — reinforced the good girl/bad girl vibe. It could have used a little more sauciness, but their voices together were heavenly good. Then when Pearce was speechless after winning female vocalist of the year, McBryde showed she had her back by jumping onstage and talking until Pearce regained her composure.
Thank God He’s a Country Boy
Thomas Rhett showed that a good song needs little, if any, embellishment. To be sure, Rhett can bring the high-octane energy with the best of them, but his stripped-down performance of “Country Again,” in a version that felt more earthy and satisfying than the recorded version, was a gentle testament to his roots and his singing chops.
Cold as Ice
Chris Stapleton showed why he was the night’s big winner, snagging four out of the five awards for which he was nominated. His performance of “Cold,” about a woman so icy she cut him out without a second thought, was such a bluesy gut punch it’s easy to imagine that the temperature in Bridgestone dropped below freezing. Between the dirge-like opening, the strings, Stapleton’s guitar playing and unrelenting vocal growl, it was like he was channeling B.B. King as his heart was ripped out for all to see.
Strength in Numbers
Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood performed their multi-week No. 1 “If I Didn’t Love You” for the first time on live TV. Aldean would most certainly agree that when duetting with Underwood, the idea is just to hang on and not get overwhelmed by her powerful vocals, and Aldean did more than hold his own here, bringing a solidness to his part that allowed Underwood to vocally soar. We’re still trying to figure out the wrecked piano surrounded by cinder blocks motif though.