This year’s CMA Awards were … interesting to say the least. If anything, it feels like the divide in country music is cutting deeper than ever before, with the best moments of the show feeling like true standouts and the worst moments feeling like embarrassments for the genre. I’m going to give my thoughts on some of the biggest moments of the show from last night, so strap in and get ready.
Baby steps were taken to increase female representation at the awards last night.
Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood may have shied away from political jokes, but that certainly didn’t stop from addressing the big elephant in country music’s room – its sexism problem. When Paisley said, “It’s been a big year for men in country music,” Underwood jokingly replied, “Yes! Finally!,” an ironic statement considering even Underwood herself is now struggling with airplay.
Regardless, it needed to be said, but at least we got some unexpected appearances and winners last night. “What Makes You Country” is a fairly poor song, but it allowed Lindsay Ell to shred on the guitar, and Ashley McBryde got some long-due recognition by being able to join in as well.
Performance wise, Mavis Staples and Maren Morris absolutely killed it on “I’ll Take You There,” and Kelsea Ballerini proved how far she’s come as a performer and songwriter on “Miss Me More.” Despite it being a cheesy song, Underwood also knocked “Love Wins” out of the park. Lastly, we got to see Miranda Lambert play the washboard with her group, the Pistol Annies. How cool is that?
One of the bigger surprises though came from Kacey Musgraves’ win for Golden Hour, a very worthy choice. The win tastes that much sweeter for everyone when you consider that Musgraves can’t even get a charting single from this project despite it being her most accessible one to date. If anything, her performance of “Slow Burn” just proves what a fantastic slice of country-pop it is. Of course, I’ll take more about all of this later.
Logic was thrown completely out of the window when it came to the winners … and honestly it might not have been the worst thing overall.
I don’t know about you, but I absolutely bombed with my predictions this year, and honestly I’m not mad about some of them. I had predicted “Drunk Girl” would win Song of the Year in anticipation that the CMAs would try to make some sort of “statement.” While I respect the intent of that song, over time it has aged pretty badly when you consider the last verse alludes to the fact that all this hard work may pay off with a hookup. That’s not the best route to take.
Thankfully, the Chris Stapleton love continued, and while some folks may be growing tired of it, honestly there were really no better options than “Broken Halos” for this category. The even bigger surprise came when it won “Single of the Year,” an award that looks at commercial success over critical acclaim. I thought for sure “Meant to Be” would win, but thankfully the CMAs “shut that shit down” (to quote Negan) by awarding it to a song that didn’t try to just exploit a genre for its soulless commercial gain. Did “Broken Halos” really deserve to win? Eh … probably not. “Drowns The Whiskey” and “Tequila” were bigger hits, but do I have any complaints? Of course not.
As mentioned before, one of the biggest shocks of the night came when Kacey Musgraves won Album of the Year for Golden Hour. You really can’t blame female artists like Musgraves, Maren Morris, Cam and others for ditching this genre to team up with pop artists and find a new audience there, as country music is giving them an unfair cold shoulder. Sure enough, Musgraves captured attention with her most pop-friendly (and least country-friendly) album to date, and you know what? I’m glad. Her win is just another example of how out of touch country radio is with consumer demand.
What’s an even bigger shock though is Keith Urban’s win for Entertainer of the Year. Now, I’m going to play devil’s advocate on this one. This award was really a toss up, and Urban just may have won by product of elimination. Considering these awards are politically based (music politics that is), Kenny Chesney likely had no shot because he just doesn’t care about the awards. Luke Bryan hasn’t had as stellar of a year as he as before. Chris Stapleton … look, I love the guy, but his live show is more about the songs themselves, not entertainment. Considering this is the awards show that snubs Jason Aldean too, the only way I could have seen him winning was as a sympathy vote for his unfortunate placement during the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting last year.
The choice for Urban isn’t really as farfetched when you think about all those factors, and in terms of entertainment, maybe he did deserve to win. I don’t know (I haven’t seen him live since 2014). The point is, for as bad as Graffiti U is, that’s not the reason he won. That album had nothing to do with it. I’m not mad at this pick.
The performances were mostly mediocre, but there were a few stunning gems.
True to the sub-headline, I thought the performances were all over the map in terms of quality. Good songs like “Drown The Whiskey” and “Burning Man” felt off vocally, meanwhile a cheesy song like “Love Wins” was one of the few times where the artist delivered a stunning delivery. Even for as much as I don’t like “What Makes You Country,” the choice of artists was fairly good, as Chris Janson delivered a blazing harmonica solo and Ashley McBryde delivered a lot of sass … even if it’ll likely be the worst song she ever sings.
On the flip side though, no artist sounded as off as Brett Young did on “Mercy.” He’s got heartfelt sincerity – I’ll give him that. But in a live setting, he sounds awful, with his voice cracking various times during the performance and him struggling to hit the higher notes. I do have to wonder if it was supposed to end early.
But if Young’s performance was cringe-inducing, at least Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line provided us all with a good laugh, dubbing their timeless classic over a full-blown orchestra. After all, it’s one of the most serious songs we’ve heard in country music. Who won’t remember such engaging lyrics as “if it’s meant to be, it’ll be, it’ll be, baby just let it be?”
In fact, it’s easier just to single out the good moments at this point: As said already, the “What Makes You Country” performance wasn’t half bad. Kelsea Ballerini absolutely killed it on “Miss Me More” (which really proves she deserves a rebound after this disappointing album era). Midland provided some of the best country music of the night with Jerry Reed’s “East Bound And Down” as a tribute to Burt Reynolds. Brad Paisley’s performance of “Bucked Off” reminded us just how great he was in the 2000s. Lastly, Kacey Musgraves delivered a highlight with “Slow Burn.”
It’s the montages though that truly deserve credit as well. I don’t know who authorized bluegrass to be played on the CMA stage, but whoever did, give them a promotion. The tribute to Ricky Skaggs was a lot of things – a testament to good picking skills (a dying art form in the mainstream), the fact that traditional country and/or bluegrass can actually sound really fun and that when you have that much talent on stage, heads will explode. Skaggs himself, Paisley, Keith Urban, John Osborne of the Brothers Osborne, Marty Stuart, Sierra Hull and Carson Peters – this is country music, y’all.
On the other hand, we got some soul courtesy of Chris (and Morgane) Stapleton and Mavis Staples, a collaboration that almost makes too much sense. Of course, to my surprise, Maren Morris held her own in this collaboration quite well. Once again, Marty Stuart helped instrumentally.
Overall despite my criticisms, I thought this was one of the best shows in quite some time, with a few quality performances and deserving winners. Country music still has a lot of work to do in certain areas (*cough*cough* female representation *cough*), but last night overall felt like a victory for the genre.