Backstage at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, CMA Awards winners, performers and presenters came back to meet the press after their appearances, including Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton, Dan + Shay, Ashley McBryde and Luke Combs.
Garth Brooks was named entertainer of the year for the seventh time, and during his acceptance speech, he practically launched into his own mini-review of the telecast, offering praise to three performers who he felt also defined “entertainer” in that moment. In the media room after the show, he repeated that critical analysis.
“As an entertainer, I just want to share that what Reba McEntire did tonight, that’s an entertainer. Man, we all felt that. We all saw it,” Brooks said, celebrating the co-host’s epic performance of “Fancy,” which was the talk of the show with its multiple live costume reveals. “It wasn’t just picking on the women, just calling it as I saw it. What Kelsea Ballerini did with just a guitar in an arena, and shrink that down on national TV, that’s a frickin’ entertainer right there,” he added, about the young star’s solo acoustic version of “Homecoming Queen.” And finally, to prove he wasn’t “picking on” the women, he extolled the star quality of a guy, too: “When you watch Luke Combs, he’s a natural. He’s gonna have eight of these,” Brooks said, rubbing his entertainer trophy. “The future of country music is in good hands.”
It didn’t unremarked upon that, with this being his seventh non-consecutive entertainer win, Brooks has always considered seven a lucky number. “I’m gonna be honest, seven does have a place in my heart,” he said. “So if this ride does ever have to end, this would be a good way to end it.”
Combs, a first-time winner for male vocalist of the year, responded to Brooks’ predictions that he’s due for the top prize — repeatedly — someday: “I grew up listening to Garth. I know every song by heart, and for him to say something like that is pretty unreal. And the pressure’s on, for sure.” Of his seeming position as a overnight superstar in country, Combs said, “I think shock is kinda where I’m at right now. Thankful is a word that comes to mind… It’s a dream come true, something I thought would never, ever happen to a guy like me, especially this fast.”
Blake Shelton is a guy who used to have a lock on male vocalist of the year, winning the award Combs claimed every year from 2010 to 2014. Then he somehow seemed to fall out of favor with CMA voters, not even landing a nomination for the three years prior to this one, despite continuing to rack up a record number of No. 1 hits. But whatever the reasons were for the missing years, he got back on the board with three nominations this year, and “God’s Country” was undeniable to voters, winning single of the year.
He was reminded how long it’d been since his first nomination. “What was I nominated for in 2003? New guy? Okay. Because I know I was way into my career before I ever won one, I know that. Now it’s been a pretty good drought since I’ve won one the last time, I think, probably…” A reporter filled him in. “Was it it five years? I was gonna say four. Thanks for that reminder,” he said with trademark sarcasm.
Of “God’s Country,” he said, “You don’t hear songs that sound like that anymore. As I say that, there probably hasn’t been that many to begin with.” Shelton described it as having “that ‘Country Boy Can Survive’ element to it… and for me, the ‘Ol’ Red’ type feel to it… a throwback with a little bit more of a rock edge to it. I knew there would be some poele out there starving for a song like that, because I was one of them.” Despite its rural-sounding theme, Shelton insisted it’s a song with something for everybody, and that white collar workers should get pumped up to it, too, driving to the office.
Shelton was asked about his occasional comments that he needs to scale back as a performer. “When I say things like winding it down,” he said, “it always has to do with… balancing two seasons of ‘The Voice’ a year versus touring. So I start thinking, what can I trade and get a little bit of my life back? So touring is always it. I don’t necessarily love being in the studio, but I get excited about making new records. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
Kacey Musgraves, who followed up an album of the year win last year for “Golden Hour” with her first win for female vocalist this year, spoke to a question about this year’s theme of honoring country’s women, suggesting that a one-and-done celebration is not ideal. “I think every year in country music, females should be equally celebrated,” she said, “because I think the female narrative is really important, and it’s been the backbone of country music since the beginning.”
Musgraves was a two-time winner Wednesday, also having won a pre-telecast best video award for “Rainbow.” She didn’t sing that on the show, but rather a thematically connected Muppets song she did as a duet with WIllie Nelson. “‘Rainbow Connection’ is a very special song to me,” she said. “It was one of the first songs that I ever learned how to sing, and it was on my first tape… It was meaningful to me for a lot of reaosns, one being I love Willie Nelson so much.” (He’d previously recorded the tune.) “But also to have my own song ‘Rainbow’ nominated this year, and to get to kind of bridge that chapter with such an icon like Willie on a song that means a lot to a lot of different people.”
Musgraves added, “And Willie’s bus is waiting on me, so I gotta go.”
Maren Morris picked up the trophy Musgraves got last year, album of the year — an award that the CMAs have a tradition of giving to some of the most powerful and artistic female voices in the format. Both the album and its lead single (which Morris performed on Wednesday’s telecast) were titled “Girl” — and Morris said that she hadn’t intended to make a feminist statement with that, necessarily, but was happy it was perceived that way.
“It’s become a lot bigger of a message than I think I ever intended, which was a very happy accident,” Morris said. “You know, I wrote the song ‘Girl’ on a really insecure day, and I wasn’t trying to be empowering to anyone. I was really just trying to tell myself to get my shit together. And it sort of become this empowering song, but I feel it’s soundtracked the year in a really positive way to me. And then it feels so timely that (the album of the same name) won tonight, of all nights, where the theme is celebrating these women in country music through the decades and now. … It was about me falling further into love and figuring myself out as a woman, not so much the newcomer anymore, but becoming more established in this genre and trying to make a space for myself. So I think there’s a lot of push and pull to this record. There was a lot of good tension making it. … ‘Girl’ was the last song we wrote for the record, but I felt it tied the record together in a really compelling way, and it moved me to tears when I heard it back after I recorded it.”
Talking about how to enfranchise women in country at a time when they are disproportionately underrepresented at radio — with the rare exception of a Morris, whose “Girl” single did achieve the rare feat of going No. 1 — she said, “I think the most impactful way to cause change in something that you’re frustrated with and disappointed with the outcome of so far is… You know, paying women is a good start. So I brought out female openers on my tour, and so has Miranda, so has Carrie. Putting them on stage is the most progressive way to get eyes on new artists that you’re a fan of, that you think your fan base would be a fan of. That wasn’t really a risk, but it felt like a really good step forward.”
As was noted more than once during the course of the night, the “Girl” singer is pregnant with a boy. “Seconds before the curtain lifted and I was gonna do my performance tonight, he started kicking,” said Morris. “And I just started feeling him kicking this week. I got my ultrasound this week, and he waved at me, and I felt like he was sort of telling me ‘good luck.’ So it worked out; he’s my good luck charm.”
She’s not worried about balancing motherhood and career, she said, having already watched and talked with Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott about how they handle it all to the point where she doesn’t imagine being maternally conflicted. “Yeah, Ryan (Hurd, her husband) and I are scared shitless,” Morris said, “but we’re excited.”
Morris also spoke again backstage, as she did on the telecast, about the “bittersweet” feeling of winning album of the year just a month and a half after the death of the “Girl” project’s primary coproducer, Busbee. (For a complete story on her feelings about Busbee’s tragic absence, read here.)
Ashley McBryde, the best new artist winner, was asked if she had advice for younger women hoping to hold that trophy. “Girls, this thing’s heavy,” she said. “And you’ll feel really good carrying it around. It’s never too early to start doing what you want to do. It’s never too late to start doing what you want to do, either. Just don’t forget the only person that can stop you is you. So don’t tell yourself no, because everyone else is going to do that for you.”
McBryde talked about the single that was recently released to tease her sophomore project, “One Night Standards,” and whether female singers discussing sexuality is less accepted now than it was back in Loretta’s and Tammy’s day. “It was taboo then and they did it, and it’s taboo now and we do it,” she said. “And that’s why we do it, because it’s taboo. It’s like having too many tattoos. I think the touchy subjects are okay to handle. If it’s uncomfortable, it’s okay. The song is only three and a half minites long. It’s okay to be uncomfortable for three and a half minutes. … When we finished writing ‘One Night Standards,’ I looked at Shane McAnally and said, ‘I hope I can cut it. I would love to and I don’t know if they’ll let me.’ He said, ‘You have to. You’re the only woman with the balls to do it.'”
The duo category tends to belong to one act for a lot of years at a time — Brooks & Dunn back in the day, and Brothers Osborne more recently. Now, Dan + Shay have become so wildly popular that it may be theirs to lose for years to come… although this was their first time getting it, almost two years into the release cycle for their third album.
“We knew this was a tentpole moment in our career,” said Dan Smyers. “The first album did its thing and kind of happened by accident. We were two songwriters like everybody else in this town; we were working on Music Row and writing all these songs, and we got a record deal out of it… The second album, we’re trying different songs and different styles.” On the third, “I feel like I haven’t slept in years because of making that record, but it was worth it, man. It changed our world in such a big way. It started with ‘Tequila,’ and there were people who told us ‘Don’t go with a ballad first, country radio will never play a ballad!’ But country radio played the heck out of that ballad, and that always seems to work for us. … That (self-titled third album) came out in June 2018 and ‘Tequila’ came out in January 2018,” he pointed out, of the not-quite-overnight success even of this breakthrough project. “That’s our bar now and we’ve gotta exceed it” with album four.
The formerly clean-cut Smyers, who’s now one of the most hirsute stars in country, was asked if he ever plans to take clippers to his hair or beard. “We’ve had pretty good luck since I started growing my hair,” he said, “so as soon as we start losing awards and not getting hits, I’ll cut the hair… My wife likes it, so that’s all that matters.”