CMT’s 2018 Artists of the Year show served as a joyful celebration of some of the top female artists in country music, but it also provided a platform for attendees to pointedly address the longstanding gender imbalance in the country music industry, which heavily favors male artists. From the red carpet to the stage at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Oct. 17, honorees, presenters and performers took jab after jab at that inequality.
Most memorably, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild pulled out her phone onstage during the show, which aired live on CMT, and read out a list of more than 30 women — all past or current members of CMT’s “Next Women of Country” incubator program — and suggesting them as acts country radio and the industry could play and support. In the audience, Maren Morris waved her arms at Fairchild in an unbridled gesture of “you go girl” approval, and the rising duo Maddie & Tae also visibly reacted with glee.
Carrie Underwood reminded her fellow honorees, “You’re not here because you’re women, you’re here because you’re dang good,” and told them, “It’s up to all of us to keep opening those doors” for other women. In a taped piece played earlier in the show, all of the honorees scoffed at the unsubstantiated belief that women don’t want to hear other women on the radio.
In addition to Underwood, the show celebrated Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, Little Big Town’s Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman and “Artist of a Lifetime” honoree Loretta Lynn, who was unable to attend due to illness. It was the first time the annual CMT show has honored only women.
Here are the night’s most memorable moments from the stage, audience and red carpet.
The hair-raising performances: Some unexpected pairings resulted in unforgettable musical moments. Ballerini and Alison Krauss got the night’s first standing ovation for an otherworldly duet of Shenandoah’s 1990 hit “Ghost In This House.” Morris and Brandi Carlile paid tribute to Aretha Franklin with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” And Scott teamed up with Tori Kelly, Kirk Franklin and a gospel choir for a medley that included “American Honey” and “Oh Happy Day.” But the performance of the night came when Gladys Knight joined forces with the women of Little Big Town for a mash up of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” with the audience rising to their feet halfway through the performance. Underwood was joined by her 2019 tour mates Maddie & Tae and the trio Runaway June for a show-closing medley that highlighted 50 years of country hits from female artists, including “Stand By Your Man,” “9 To 5,” “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain,” “Independence Day,” “Wild One,” “Why Haven’t I Heard From You,” “Man, I Feel Like A Woman” and Underwood’s “Cry Pretty.”
The next generation: Perhaps wanting to share with their daughters a night that celebrated women, several stars had their offspring in tow. Scott brought daughter Eisele, Dierks Bentley arrived with oldest child Evie and Sara Evans was accompanied by her teenage girls, Audrey and Olivia.
The Loretta tribute: Despite her absence, Lynn was emotionally honored, with pal Sissy Spacek — who portrayed the singer in the 1980 film “Coal Miner’s Daughter” — tearing up as she called Lynn “my cheerleader, my sister.” Martina McBride and Sheryl Crow each donned the sort of flowing gowns that have become Lynn’s trademark to sing “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” respectively, Crow’s performance a duet with Bentley.
The friendships: After Scott paid tribute to close pal Ballerini, the two stars held hands as they descended the stairs to return to their seats. During a commercial break, Ballerini and presenter Elle King were spotted hugging, posing for a photo and having a long chat.
Crossover dreams: “It’s been a dream of mine since I was a little girl to make a country album,” King told Billboard. “I have enough country songs that I’ve written, most of them from when I lived here in Nashville, but I don’t know. One day I will do it. I will.” King — who now has a Nashville-based manager and has already enjoyed her first country chart topper when her duet with Bentley, “Different For Girls” hit No. 1 on a Billboard’s Hot Country Airplay chart in 2016. Like King, pop star Tori Kelly has already make an appearance on the country charts with her Chris Lane duet, “Take Back Home Girl,” and she told Billboard that she, too, might make a country album one day. “You never know,” she said on the red carpet. “I kind of like to cross over genres and blur the lines, and I’ve always loved country music, so I would not be surprised if that happens.”
The unexpected fan: Motown legend Smokey Robinson, who was on hand to introduce Morris and Carlile’s Aretha Franklin tribute on the show, told Billboard he’s been a country music fan since he was two years old, when his father “played Merle Haggard all the time.” His favorite current artist is Keith Urban. Said Robinson, “Country writers tell some of the greatest stories ever in the history of music…country writers write life.”