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Carrie Underwood Wins Top Prize at CMT Awards, With Co-Host Kane Brown the Only Double Honoree

Initiatives to better represent Blacks and women in country converged in a moving tribute to pioneer Linda Martell, and in H.E.R, Mickey Guyton and Gladys Knight providing standout segments.

country music
Courtesy CMT

Carrie Underwood and John Legend won video of the year at Wednesday’s CMT Music Awards for their song “Hallelujah,” from her Christmas album last year. “Congratulations on what I think is your first CMT Award!” a grateful Underwood told an absent Legend, correctly surmising that fact perhaps just from the limited amount of country songs that her duet partner has participated in so far.

The cross-genre spirit of that song carried through to the performances on the show, with the collaborative numbers including H.E.R. performing with Chris Stapleton, Gladys Knight being joined by Mickey Guyton and Breland, Kelsea Ballerini joining forces with LANY’s Paul Jason Klein, and Underwood herself teaming up with the band Needtobreathe.

Co-hosts Kelsea Ballerini and Kane Brown both picked up trophies in the fan-voted honors, with the latter singer happening to be the only double-winner of the night, for male video of the year (“Worship You”) and collaborative video (“Famous Friends,” with Chris Young).

Ballerini won for CMT performance of the year for a showcase number from last year’s awards show, “The Other Girl,” a duet with Halsey. Ballerini, who was picking up her first CMT Award ever, said, “There was a lot of chatter on categorically what genre that song did or didn’t belong in… You know what my roots are, you know who I am, but it also tells me you love music as music.” Ballerini again looked outside the genre for her duet on this year’s show, with LANY singer Paul Jason Klein joining her for “I Quit Drinking.”

The CMT Awards were clearly looking to offer a high representation of female and Black Artists this year… and female Black artists in particular, with much of the talk about shutout status in country music having narrowed to focus on that relatively invisible intersection.

The special CMT Equal Play Award was given to 80-year-old Linda Martell, who in 1969 became the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry or to hit the airplay charts — the latter feat one shockingly not repeated since to any significant degree, as Mickey Guyton pointed out in her introduction. “She had all the talent to be a huge star, but her career was cut short for one reason: the color of her skin,” Guyton said. In a filmed tribute to Martell, who was said to be watching from home, Rhiannon Giddens said, “She was before her time, but it’s not too late to honor her… She carved a path and blazed a trail for all of us to follow.” A documentary about Martell is currently in production.

Black performers were unusually well represented on the show — for a country show, as the asterisk goes. The appearance of Knight, Guyton and rising male artist Breland in a single number might have represented a signal moment for a Nashville-based awards show. H.E.R., Kane Brown and Blanco Brown also significantly upped the Black presence on the show.

Dylan Scott won in the freshman category for “Nobody,” and Little Big Town picked up duo/group of the year for “Wine, Beer, Whiskey.” An award to Gabby Barrett for female video of the year (for “The Good Ones”) was accepted by presenter Knight, after Barrett announced the previous day that “personal circumstances” would prevent her from performing at or attending the ceremony as scheduled.

The only other absentee winner was Taylor Swift, coming out on top in a a category that was added in the final days but presented off-camera, best family feature, for the old-VHS-footage-filled video for “The Best Day (Taylor’s Version).”

This year’s CMT Awards were marked by a number of relatively last-minute changes. One was the call to use the Bridgestone Arena as a host venue after all, with a socially distanced audience of only about 500 inside the cavernous hall. Producers had originally considered staging all the performances outdoors, but between the increasingly safe prospects for bringing in an an audience and looming rain in the forecast, a roof seemed like a good idea. In the end, the show’s performance philosophy was a hybrid model — about half live performances in front of the smallish crowd inside Bridgestone, and about half numbers taped pre-rain in outdoor locations ranging from nearby downtown Nashville rooftops to the Bonnaroo festival grounds.

Another change-up was the absence of both Barrett and Maren Morris from the proceedings. Barrett had been scheduled to participate in the opening number, Lady A’s recent single “Like a Lady,” along with Carly Pearce. She was replaced by Lindsay Ell, who did not join in the lead vocals but played a guitar solo instead.

Morris going MIA was also mysterious, as she took to her Instagram Story earlier in the week to say “scheduling conflicts” had caused her to bow out of singing a duet with J.P. Saxe of their recent joint single. Morris’ slot was filled by Ingrid Andress, who sang a different number with Saxe on top of her own “Lady Like.” Morris did not go into any detail on what her conflict was, but everyone’s best guess was that it involved her appearance at a Tuesday night Miley Cyrus Pride special taping at the Ryman Auditorium, where she sang a duet with Cyrus on ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

 

Brown was co-hosting the show for the second year in a row, with Ballerini making a first-time appearance in that role. The pair appeared frequently in a variety of outfits but kept their opening monologue short, with the jokes limited to Ballerini quipping, “One time I accidentally answered the phone Kelsea Quarantini,” and Brown saying, “I liked the show ‘The Masked Singer’ a lot more when it was a TV show and not my real life.”

The complete list of winners:

Video of the year: Carrie Underwood with John Legend – “Hallelujah”

Female video of the year: Gabby Barrett – “The Good Ones”

Male video of the year: Kane Brown – “Worship You”

Duo/group video of the year: Little Big Town – “Wine, Beer, Whiskey”

Breakthrough video of the year: Dylan Scott – “Nobody”

Collaborative video of the year: Chris Young and Kane Brown – “Famous Friends”

CMT performance of the year: Kelsea Ballerini and Halsey – “The Other Girl”

Best family feature: Taylor Swift – “The Best Day (Taylor’s Version)”