If a television network could say “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!,” that’s what CMT did Wednesday night in devoting its entire annual “CMT Artists of the Year” honoree slate — and nearly all of the presenter and performer slots, too — to country’s quantifiably under-served female stars. The genre seemed to be getting its own Lilith Fair in the telecast, albeit a Lilith Fair squeezed down into 95 all-too-fast minutes for a brisk show that was telecast live from Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
If a gender-identity-claiming network could talk, it might also say, “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” — the song performed by honoree Maren Morris and an outside-the-genre guest, Brandi Carlile, as a tribute to Aretha Franklin and also, implicitly, in honor of the sisterhood. That teaming of great voices seemed like it would easily be the highlight of the night, but then there were several others that gave it strong competition, with CMT aiming for the kind of slightly outside-the-box collaborations that have come to be known as “Grammy moments,” no matter which show or network they’re on.
The chill factor was high — “chill” in both senses of the word — as Gladys Knight joined the two women of Little Big Town, Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman, for a medley of the Bonnie Raitt hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Sheryl Crow and Dierks Bentley saluted the unfortunately MIA Loretta Lynn (a lifetime honoree who had to call in sick) with a duet of the Loretta/Conway classic “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.” Kelsea Ballerini was joined by Alison Krauss for a spooky, elegant reprise of the latter’s “The Ghost in the House,” making Ballerini the first and presumably last person ever to collaborate with Krauss and the Chainsmokers in the same month. Hillary Scott got her Edwin Hawkins on with pop-turned-gospel artist Tori Kelly and Kirk Franklin for “Oh Happy Day.”
And Carrie Underwood ensured that Lynn wasn’t the only legend enshrined in song during the night. With support from the opening acts on her upcoming tour, Maddie & Tae and Runaway June, she ran through a breathless show-closing medley of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” the Judds’ “Rhythm of the Rain,” Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” Faith Hill’s “Wild One,” Reba McEntire’s “Why Haven’t I Heard from You,” Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and, finally and just as fleetingly, a snippet of Underwood’s own “Cry Pretty.”
The only honoree to focus entirely on a new and original song, in fact, was Miranda Lambert, though this was hardly a solipsistic move on her part. That number was “Sugar Daddy,” a sly take on gender roles, as performed by Pistol Annies, country’s only all-star, all-female supergroup-side-project.
It was surely pure coincidence, but the night began and ended with the sight of very pregnant women at center stage — Angaleena Presley in Pistol Annies’ show-opener, and the most famously expectant celebrity of the moment, Underwood, at the wrap. This bookending ranked very high on the list of Things We Didn’t See at last year’s “Artists of the Year,” which was the proverbial sausagefest, albeit a sausagefest of the highest order.
Testimonials ran throughout the evening — veteran to newcomer, newcomer to veteran, artist to network — but they didn’t seem as treacly as that kind of awards-show sermonizing usually gets, maybe because of the underdog factor underlying the intent of the entire evening, which was to counter the lack of representation on the charts, where women struggle to get 10% of the available chart positions and even 5% of the top spots in a year-end ranking.
“Thank you, CMT, for doing this,” Underwood said in accepting her award. “We need more things like this. But I definitely want to say to all the incredible, amazing, talented women on the stage tonight, you are not here because you are women —you are here because you are dang good.” This echoed Underwood’s words in a recent interview with Variety where she claimed that she chose Maddie & Tae as Runaway June as opening acts on her 2019 tour because they were the best people for the job, not because they were the best women — even if it’s hard not to believe that there is a kind of activism at play in the act.
On the red carpet, Maddie & Tae appreciated Underwood’s stance, while agreeing that there is advocacy embedded in it. “I think Carrie’s sending a message in the classiest way,” said Maddie. “She didn’t come out and say ‘all-female tour.’ She’s like, ‘These are my acts. I chose them as the best support.’” Added Tae, “Taylor Swift did it that way, too [on her recent tour with Camila Cabello and Charli XCX]. She didn’t come out and say ‘all-female tour,’ but it was.”
Nearly every female country legend you could think of got a shout-out, even if Underwood missed them in her encompassing medley. Of Emmylou Harris, LBT’s Schlapman said, “She’s my girl crush… The very first record I had as a child was ‘Roses in the Snow.’ I learned it backward and forward.” Lambert called out a less-cited influence: “When I was 17, I found Allison Moorer.” Lady Antebellum’s Scott pointed to McBride and Patty Loveless as well as Krauss. The influence getting the biggest cheer from the in-house audience upon being named was the Dixie Chicks, as cited by Morris.
Lynn was supposed to be on hand for her tribute, which, besides the Crow/Bentley duet, also had McBride singing “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” as she did on her 2005 “Timeless” album of classic country covers. Presenter Sissy Spacek said Lynn was “under the weather” but said she’d visited with her that day. “I loved being her,” the actress said of playing Lynn in the biopic “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” “She’s like my sister,” Spacek said. “She was so excited about this award. She asked me, ‘What are you gonna wear?’” Spacek wasn’t sure. “’You want to wear one of my gowns?’ That’s the kind of friend she is.” (The actress apparently wasn’t quite prepared to go there, opting for a sensible black pantsuit.) “I think Loretta said it best: It’s about dadgum time we recognized women… I know you’re watching, Loretta, I love you.”
Crow didn’t just cover Loretta; she also introduced Morris, saying there are songs that make her say “’Damn, I wish I would have written that.’ That was the way I felt the first time I heard ‘My Church.’ That’s the kind of song that makes you pull over your car” — she interrupted herself to get specific — “your hybrid — to listen.” She topped her intro off with an a cappella snippet of “The Middle.”
Little Big Town’s Fairchild claimed the pay-it-forward spot for the night, at the end of their acceptance speech. “I can’t say enough about CMT for just honoring and celebrating women,” she said. “I just want to say, in case anyone’s watching, that Danielle Bradbery, Runaway June, Kelleigh Bannen, Kassi Ashton, Ashley McBryde, Cassadee Pope, Raelynn, Mickey Guyton, Lucie Silvas, Jillian Jacqueline, Heather Morgan, Abby Anderson, Aubrie Sellers, Tenille Townes, Rachel Womack, Maddie & Tae, Carly Pearce, Ruthie Collins, Maggie Rose, Caitlyn Smith, Lindsay Ell, Jana Kramer, Clare Dunn…” At this point, the well-intended applause in the hall drowned out some of the names, before she was audible again. “…Candi Carpenter, Lillie Mae, Emily Hackett, Little Feather, Kalie Shorr and Lacy Cavalier are there for you to support and play on the radio.”
On the red carpet, we asked Bentley how it felt to be one of two token dudes allowed to sing on the telecast (the other was Kirk Franklin). “The tables have turned here. It feels great. I’m a fan of so many people in this room, as voices and as songwriters,” he said, citing Morris, Carlile and LBT for starters. He’s someone who’s arguably earned the right to bust his way onto an otherwise all-female — not just because no woman wanted to take the Conway Twitty part against Sheryl’s Loretta, but because he’s been a notably female-friendly male artist, with the recent hit “Woman, Amen” and his duet with presenter Elle King, “It’s Different for Girls.” “I feel pretty at home here. I feel like I’ve been a strong supporter throughout. I have a lot of women on my records as songwriters, as duets and background vocalists,” he said, “and to hear women take center stage, and for Evie to get a chance to see all these great, powerful women is pretty awesome for me.” Evie is the 10-year-old daughter and aspiring singer he brought as his date. “I think honestly if they had said, ‘Hey, you and Evie, do you want to bring your daughter and come watch the show and we’ll get you a seat,’ I probably would have come anyway. It’s special and important for Evie as a singer to get a chance to see some of these women up here and see what they’re doing.”
Morris and Carlile spoke on the red carpet while Smokey Robinson hovered behind them, looking like a patient fan, waiting for a chance to break in and hug Morris, whom he would later introduce. “That was crazy,” said Morris, after the soul legend finally busted in. “He smells really good! Oh my God —Smokey F-ing Robinson. Well, that made my night, so I think everything is going to be fine.”
And then… more sober thoughts. “As a woman in country music and that is played on country radio, I listen to the radio and I see very clearly the lack of the female perspective,” Morris said. “It’s a very troubling thing but it also makes me very fired up to change it. And this night feels like a stepping stone to that. Because every single one of these women being honored tonight and performing tonight has changed the game in their own way. And I think it’s all cyclical, and it’s trends, but I think eventually the balance will be put back in order on country radio.”
“I don’t think only country music is to blame by a long shot,” added Carlile, whose appeal has been more in the rock singer/songwriter or Americana worlds. “I think it’s a cross-genre problem that is being looked at for the first time in a long time. And I really am heartened by that and excited to see that it’s being put under a microscope. I think it’s gonna be addressed. I think it’s gonna evolve into a no-compete, inspiring, female and male representation type of world. I think our outcome is about to change, and I have a lot of hope about that.”
“Brandi has started an all-female festival that I’m on in January in Mexico,” Morris pointed out. “On festival lineups, there is also a weird gap (favoring men over women). I don’t know why. But I love that you’re doing that.”
“Thank you. I love that you’re doing it,” said Carlile.
“I love that I’m doing it, too,” quipped Morris. “And I think (in country) people are correcting the error, too. I mean, the Tortuga festival lineup (in Florida) that I’m on next year came out today, and there are a ton of women. And people are so excited. It’s like, duh!”
Presenter Sara Evans sounded less hopeful about the immediate fortunes of women in country as she spoke on the red carpet. She headlined a CMT Next Women of Country theater tour this year, and “we had two new girls out with us, Kalie Shorr and Raelynn, and I was so proud of them; they were just more proof that the girls are just as good as the guys in the country genre and deserve spots on country radio.”
Which she doesn’t see happening in a big way any time soon, frankly speaking. Asked if things have gotten better or worse since her biggest run of hits in the 2000s, Evans said, “Oh my God, it’s so much worse, it’s not even comparable. In the mid-2000s, I was having hits at country radio and other women were too. And now it’s nothing — maybe two females in the top 50 at any given moment. A great artist and a great song deserves a spot. I would have never moved to Nashville and gone into country music if I had known that at some point they would completely blackball women… And it’s been this way for way too long, and it’s devastated my career and lots of my girlfriends’ careers.”
Could an event like “Artists of the Year” make a difference? “It might, because with all this press that will go out tonight, more people will talk about it. But it’s down to the country radio programmers. They’ve got to start spinning females. And I don’t know what it’s gonna take. They don’t give a shit, because it’s working right now, and as long as it’s working, they’re going to keep doing it. But it’s just sad, because it totally takes away from the art. Country music has always been known for its awesome lyrics. Years ago they used to say go to Nashville; the best songwriters are in Nashville. And the best songwriters are still in Nashville but they’re not being allowed to write their best songs because they have to write about a beer and a truck and a girl in tight jeans – stupid, stupid songs. And I’m so sick of it. Anyway, I’m happy about tonight, and all these girls are very, very deserving.”
Wednesday’s telecast might have been the most consistently great country awards show ever televised — and with a lineup of all of its female stars, performing a lot of classic as well as a little fresh material, how could it not be? The barrier for entry to female artists is so high, it’s a near-certainty that none of the ones that make it are going to be duds, and these all-stars all hit homers out of the Schermerhorn into the TV sets of America. But will we love them tomorrow, when morning drive-time offers an instant reset to the imbalance?