If there’s one thing that’s usually certain about the Country Music Association Awards, it’s that whoever wins the top prize, Entertainer of the Year, will be someone who didn’t win another award all night. That was the case again this year, although uncertainty did figure in, in that it went in an upset to Keith Urban, who hadn’t picked off the competition since 2005. “I’m shocked beyond shocked,” Urban said, speaking for most prognosticators, too.
Maybe the only veteran as visibly surprised to be making a CMA Awards comeback was co-host Carrie Underwood, who won for best female vocalist, after having surrendered that prize to Miranda Lambert in seven of the eight previous years. “Thank you, God,” said a teary Underwood on the telecast. Backstage, later, she admitted, “I would be lying if I said that while I was recording this album (the recently released “Cry Pretty”) I didn’t want awards.” She referenced her very visible pregnancy in adding, “Hopefully I can be an inspiration to my children, and to other working moms. Because we got this.”
Another surprise, to some (if only because Chris Stapleton didn’t win it, again) was Kacey Musgraves’ first-time win in the album of the year category for “Golden Hour.” That particular category tends to be a magnet for “cred” wins, and this was no exception, with critical acclaim and other media attention having far outstripped radio play for an album that took Musgraves further outside of any kind of country box. “I imagined this land musically where it was possible to keep these elements of country that are intrinsic to my music, like pedal steel and banjo,” she said backstage, “but I wanted to explore this new frontier for myself with kind of electronic elements… I think this album has reached well beyond country music, but I wanted to give people who do love country music something, too.”
No surprise at all, then: the three trophies for Stapleton, the most of anyone for the night. Although he had to surrender the album category that had been his on his freshman and sophomore efforts, he more than made up for it by winning in divisions that hadn’t been his previously, with “Broken Halos” winning both single and song of the year. Additionally, for the fourth year in a row he picked up best male vocalist, a category any other competitor should probably just forget about for at least the next decade.
Best new artist went, as expected, to powerhouse vocalist Luke Combs, with strong competition from Midland and Old Dominion, bands that, as bands, may have canceled each other out. Combs enjoys good will as someone who built his own success in the streaming world before being picked up by Sony Nashville — and, as he pointed out in the press room after his win, he’s not the only one. “I think guys like myself and Kane (Brown) and Dan + Shay and Brett Young are lucky to be part of a wave of artists that have started on our own and been adopted by the Nashville system,” he said.
Combs’ comments brought up a controversial subject— that labelmate Kane Brown didn’t get a single nomination; if he had, he would have been expected to be strong competition for Brown. Despite being shut out of the nominations, Brown did what other country stars in similar circumstances are expected to do and graciously put in an appearance anyway, as he did as a presenter. (He’s not alone among huge sellers in being overlooked; superstar Jason Aldean was curiously forgotten by the CMAs for years before coming back and being nominated for entertainer of the year this year.)
Brothers Osborne were no surprise at all in the duo category, yet again. “I don’t know why we keep winning this, If this was in Florida, there would definitely be a recount,” said John Osborne in the press room. They repeatedly referenced an expected Dan + Shay upset that never happened, based on that other duo’s superior sales stats. “We work really hard and try to be respectful to everyone around us,” said TJ Osborne backstage. “Dan + Shay are the same way —but they have really big songs on the radio, too.” He said when he asked his brother if he had an acceptance speech in mind, “John said, ‘I don’t know but I have a congratulations tweet to Dan + Shay on standby.’”
John Osborne did say that the one thing they were sure they were going to regret if they lost was the opportunity to come backstage and “miss our friends in the press.” The duo, who have been known to espouse some non-conservative social and political views, then rallied the assembled reporters in the room: “Free press! You are not the enemy of the people! Use your voice and use it loud.”
Garth Brooks, who’d won the entertainer of the year award in the previous two years, debuted a new ballad written for his wife, Trisha Yearwood. “The first time I played that for Trisha was five minutes ago” he said backstage. There’d been reports that the CMA producers were not completely in favor of him doing the tune originally. Asked about it backstage, Brooks said he understood the viewpoint — “Doing a ballad and a new song wasn’t necessarily great TV” from their point of view — but said he won them over. As if Garth would ultimately ever chalk up a loss on that one.
A series of superior performance made this CMAs a winner in its own right. Luke Bryan opened the show by bringing out a host of younger artists to help him out on “What Makes You Country” — including two acclaimed women who’ve faced an uphill battle, Ashley McBryde and Lindsay Ell. The girl power increased as Miranda Lambert led Pistol Annies through “Got My Name Changed Back,” marking the first time in at least a very long time the word “whores” has appeared in a song on the CMAs. Musgraves sang “Slow Burn,” a song you might have thought was truly too much of a slow burner for fast-paced TV… but for fans, at least, it was a riveting third-hour highlight.
Not so slow at all was the frantic medley featuring new Hall of Famer Ricky Skaggs, running through both the mainstream country and bluegrass portions of his career with help from Urban, show co-host Brad Paisley, and young prodigies Sierra Hull and Carson Peters (who’s a mere 14). Even at its most acoustic, it was the most rocking set of the night.
But the CMAs did well by their all-star jams this year. Stapleton was joined by Mavis Staples, Maren Morris, Marty Stuart and the Nashville Urban Choir for a medley of his “Friendship” and Staples’ “I’ll Take You There.” “I brought a bunch of ringers,” Stapleton explained backstage. “Mavis in particular, we all owe her so much musically. Some of us may not even realize it. But she’s electricity in a bottle, and so inspiring to be around as a person and musician. If we can use some of our time to put her front and center, that’s exactly what we should be doing.”
If you were to watch only this telecast, you’d think that bro-country had never existed and the genre had always been the genre of peace, love, spirituality and uplifting social awareness. It wasn’t just in the borrowing of a Staples Singers classic or Stapleton singing about the art of giving. It was in Brooks elevating womanhood generally as well as Miss Yearwood specifically in singing, “She’s Stronger Than Me.” It may not be one of his all-time classics, but it’s a way to put a girl in a country song that Maddie & Tae might appreciate.
It was in Musgraves explaining the less wry, more earnest philosophy behind her latest album backstage: “It was important for me to give people kind of a hiding place with this record,” she said. “We live in a tumultuous time. People may have expected social commentary from me… and it’s there. But I was inspired to write about this beautiful world that we live in… For me it was this really open-hearted, positive time, and the music is directly inspired by that.”
It was in Garth Brooks opening the show by asking for a long moment of silence for the victims of the shootings at the country bar in Thousand Oaks, California, as their names appeared on screen — a sobriety no genre should have forced upon it, but one that country is prepared to wear well, when needed. Stapleton readdressed that theme in accepting one of two awards for “Broken Halos,” the rare traditional country mortality ballad to make a breakthrough on modern radio: “We wrote it about people that have gone on long before their time. I want to be thinking about the people out in California right now as we’re accepting this award and dedicate that to them.”
And it was in Underwood adopting the other choir of the night in singing “Love Wins,” a pro-tolerance anthem; backstage, she said she was led by her Christian morals to write about the need for greater acceptance. In other words: yes, she’s a snowflake. Wednesday night, if only for one carefully curated night, country music was the snowflake genre, and lovingly proud of it. And that charge was led by Underwood, who traditionally plays Grace Allen to Paisley’s George Burns during the opening comedy bits, but then did her best to make country the music of amazing grace before show’s end.