Wednesday’s (Nov. 11) 54th annual CMA Awards had the distinction of being one of the few major award shows after the pandemic broke that hasn’t been pushed back or cancelled.
It was also the first to push the boundaries of how live an awards show could be now, complete with co-hosts Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker, an audience (albeit only the nominees and performers) and mostly live on-site performances, instead of pre-taped pieces.
The CMAs instituted a strict COVID-19 protocol complete with rigorous testing. Even given the latest surge, it was still a surprise that prior to the show’s kick off Lee Brice, Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, fiddle player Jenee Fleenor and the members of Lady A had all pulled out of their performances because they or someone in their family had tested positive. During the show, Rascal Flatts posted that they too were absent because an unspecified band member had tested positive. Hopefully the safeguards the CMAs put in place will mean we’re not hearing about more positive results over the next week or so given the largely unmasked audience.
Despite the big-name absences, the show still provided several top-notch appearances that reinforced that most country artists don’t need bells and whistles to put on a captivating performance, just a guitar or two and a microphone.
The Devil Went Down To Nashville
The show opened with a spirited tribute to Charlie Daniels, who died in July, as Dierks Bentley kicked off a medley of the beloved superstar’s hits with a solo “Long Haired Country Boy” before joining Brothers Osborne on “Trudy,” and then Ashley McBryde kicked off a spirited “Texas” with sizzling guitar work from John Osborne. Jason Aldean closed the salute with a faithful reading of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” with a ferocious fiddle solo by Bentley’s fiddle player, Dan Hochhalter, filling in for Fleenor. The tribute showed a great range of Daniels’ talents and reminded the audience that we lost one of the greats.
Music City Goes Hollywood
Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber performed their hit “10,000 Hours” together on an awards show for the first time from an empty Hollywood Bowl. Bathed in eerie, gorgeous light, Dan + Shay and Bieber, accompanied only by Dan (Smyers) on piano showed the song’s simple beauty. With Shay (Mooney) and Bieber’s vocals wrapping around each other. When do we get a Dan + Shay+ Justin full album? It can’t come soon enough.
One Serving of Bitter Coming Up
There’s no mood that Luke Combs doesn’t tackle well and some appreciate his romantic side as the success of songs like “Forever After All” attest, but Combs has proven again and again that heartache may be his strongest suit and mid-tempo stomp “Cold As You” is a worthy entry in his lovelorn canon. He’s the perfect sucker here in a dive bar where “when guys like me lose girls like you, that’s where we run to.” He’s as stuck on her memory as the broken clock on the wall, as “this broke heart fool, on an old beer stool, drinkin’ beer almost as cold as you.”
Reba and Darius Believe in Mac
McEntire and Rucker saluted Mac Davis, who died in September, with a note-perfect rendition of his classic take on social injustice, “In the Ghetto.” Adhering closely to Elvis Presley’s 1969 hit version, complete with the ethereal female backing vocals, the pair showed why the song is, sadly, as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Their studio version, recorded a few months ago, dropped at midnight.
Pride of Country
Charley Pride, recipient of this year’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement, showed why, at 86, he’s still getting the job done. A pioneer in breaking through country music’s racial barriers, Pride joined Jimmie Allen for a lovely version of Pride’s massive hit, 1971’s “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” with Allen’s harmonies on the song beautifully complementing Pride’s still solid vocals. But the real charm came in Pride’s humble acceptance speech. Clearly touched, he took out a list of people to thank, including his producer Jack Clement, and others who had joined him on his journey, before declaring he was nervous and he was done. Sweet and classic.
A New Beginning
Chris Stapleton, along with wife Morgane, performed the title track to Starting Over, his new album out Friday (Nov. 13). As the title suggests, the protagonist and his love are setting out for a new beginning, hoping the breaks go their way. Despite the upbeat lyrics, there’s a wistfulness and glorious tinge of sadness to the track that makes it clear he realizes that things may not go quite as planned.
Other than the tribute to Charlie Daniels, the CMA Awards’ producers smartly decided to honor artists we’ve lost this year with single songs instead of choppy medleys. In addition to the tribute to Davis, Jon Pardi delivered a delightfully twangy version of Joe Diffie’s humorous “Pick Up Man,” while Little Big Town struck just the right melancholic tone on their version of Kenny Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man.”
Shining a Light
Maren Morris took multiple trips into the winner’s circle Wednesday night. At times she was humorous — noting how happy she was to be out of the house after giving birth eight months ago — and others she was beautifully humble. But it was her last trip to the microphone, accepting for female vocalist of the year, that she used her platform — literally and figuratively — to lift up Black female artists who have come before and after her. “There are so many amazing Black women that pioneered and continue to pioneer this genre,” she said before name-checking ‘60s and ‘70s hitmaker Linda Martell to current day artists Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, newcomer Brittney Spencer and Rihannon Giddens. Radio, are you listening?