The 53rd CMA Awards were determined to make history on Wednesday night by dedicating the broadcast to the accomplishments of women in country music. For the most part, that happened: the all-star opening put vets like Terri Clark, Gretchen Wilson, and Martina McBride back in the spotlight, Kacey Musgraves won her first Female Vocalist of the Year trophy, and fiddle player Jenee Fleenor became the first woman to ever be named Musician of the Year. But there were also some moments that had us feeling like a tired, old history was repeating itself. And some things were just plain bad — or worse yet, boring. Here’s the 12 best, worst and WTF moments from Nashville’s big party.
Multi-artist performances by their very nature have a way of being glorious train wrecks, so it was a welcome surprise that the show’s all-star opening medley and the “Girl Crush” reprise later on both worked so well. Stitching together nearly 20 performers including Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Sara Evans, Martina McBride, and Jennifer Nettles, the nine-minute opener was a nice overview of the monumental, earth-shifting contributions women have made to country music, with each truncated section afforded the proper reverence even when the combinations were unlikely (the Highwomen singing backup on Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” is the collaboration we never knew we needed). Likewise, the pivot from Kelsea Ballerini’s acoustic “Homecoming Queen” into the rendition of Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” — perhaps this decade’s defining country hit — was wonderfully seamless. Highlighting the distinct styles of current-gen artists Lindsay Ell, Ashley McBryde, Carly Pearce, Runaway June, and Maddie & Tae, it reiterated what country-music experts have been exasperatedly yelling for some time: anyone who says there aren’t enough talented women working in the genre right now clearly isn’t paying attention. J.F.
For an award show focused on honoring the achievements of women in country music and saluting the foremothers of the format, the stage set’s centerpiece may have been a little too… on the nose? Or maybe that’s not the right body part. The shape of the hallway walls were meant to echo the diamond shape of the CMA trophy, but once that shape was given depth and lit up with pulsating lights…well, someone had to think about how this would look, right? Whether or not the CMAs’ tunnel of love was intentional, a Twitter hashtag certainly was: #CMAVagina. H.K.
The CMA’s opening monologue is never a place for grand statements — it’s all about vaguely funny jokes, very (very, very) mild sexual innuendos, and good clean country ribbing. Dolly, Reba, and Carrie did not deviate from this mold, packing their time with references to boobs (“racks,” specifically), hairspray, and crowded dressing rooms. This is all fine and good, but there’s a reason why the CMA Awards asked McEntire and Parton to sub in for Brad Paisley and turn the evening into a celebration of women — and that’s the glaring gender disparity on the airwaves. Such an important topic deserved an important, potent introduction, or at least a few earnest lines from three of country’s biggest stars to explain why they were so gathered. There’s nothing humorous about the state of country radio, so why sidestep it with corny jokes? M.M.
Reba McEntire’s cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” has been a staple of drag shows for decades now — but the redhead made the routine a little more involved last night, featuring not one, but two onstage wardrobe changes. In the past, she sang most of the song in a fur coat and then ripped it open to reveal a sparkly red dress at the moment “Fancy” makes it from teenage lady of the evening to world-renowned madam. This time, McEntire started off wearing a light purple satin robe with white feather-boa cuffs before opening it to reveal the red dress for the first chorus. For the final chorus, she ripped open the dress to display a sparkly red pantsuit that could have been lifted from the dressing room of Bobbie Gentry’s late-Seventies Las Vegas revues. McEntire’s “Fancy” is an ageless, camp classic that had everyone in the audience from Eric Church to Reese Witherspoon singing along and wearing a big smile on their faces. H.K.
C’mon, man. While there’s no denying Garth Brooks is a pillar of country music whose songs will be played until the end of time (well, maybe not “People Loving People”), his third Entertainer of the Year win in four years was a bit much. During a night dedicated to women in country music, the sentimental favorite for the CMA’s top prize was Carrie Underwood — the only woman nominated in the field. But any hope for a fairy tale ending evaporated when Brooks’ name was called. It wasn’t his fault, per se, and it’s probably true that Underwood split the vote with the other most deserving candidate, Eric Church. Still, Brooks’ dominance in the category since coming out of self-imposed retirement in 2014 left us feeling like we’ve seen this all before, and his hammy performance of “Dive Bar” with Blake Shelton didn’t offer anything new. It’s time to pass the torch. J.H.
Country music hasn’t been sure of what to do with Lil Nas X ever since his record-breaking, country-flavored “Old Town Road” became a monster hit last summer. Billy Ray Cyrus jumped on the remix, and their collaboration was named this year’s CMA Musical Event of the Year. They accepted the award off camera during the pre-telecast, but it’s odd CMA producers didn’t find somewhere to plug Lil Nas X into the show beyond a quick wave to the camera when they mentioned his win in passing. For a format that is constantly trying to cross over to the pop market and expand to new audiences, this was a head-scratcher. If you can find a presenter spot for The Bachelorette‘s Hannah Brown, you can surely find room for the guy whose debut single prompted millions of non-country listeners to maybe scroll through a country playlist for the first time. H.K.
The night’s most historic win wasn’t televised. In a ceremony held earlier in the day, fiddle player Jenee Fleenor became the first woman to win Musician of the Year, a category that was created in 1988. (Fleenor was also the first woman to be nominated for the award.) In her acceptance speech, she thanked the other nominees — Mac McAnally, Paul Franklin, Ilya Toshinsky, and Derek Wells — as well as Jon Pardi and Blake Shelton, the latter of whom she has played with for much of her career in Nashville. Fleenor did get to take a victory lap during the broadcast, though, joining Shelton for a fiery performance of “God’s Country,” during which she was all smiles as the singer beckoned her to the front of the stage for a rousing solo. B.M.
Carrie Underwood brought her sultry performance of “Drinking Alone” from her just-wrapped Cry Pretty 360 World Tour to the CMA Awards stage for one of the night’s standout moments. From the smooth jazz arrangement to her Michael Jackson “Smooth Criminal”-inspired wardrobe and set, everything about this performance illustrates Underwood’s refusal to simply rest on her past success. Well into the second decade of her career, she continues to explore new sounds and dream up creative stage presentations to create distinct eras in her career à la Janet Jackson, Lady Gaga, and Madonna in the pop world. Seeing Underwood in action like this only heightened the disappointment when she was once again denied the evening’s top prize, Entertainer of the Year. H.K.
Willie Nelson made his first CMA Awards appearance in seven years, a rare trip from his Hawaii home that should have been met with all the reverence of a papal visit. But when cameras cut to the 86-year-old legend during the show’s opening monologue, there he was seated behind Cody Johnson and his big ol’ hat. Sure, Johnson was a Best New Artist nominee and, at least, a fellow Texan, but Willie, who was in town to sing with Kacey Musgraves, deserves prime real estate. Like Jack Nicholson when he goes to the Oscars, Nelson should have a front row seat every time he graces us with showing up. J.H.
Maren Morris had a lot to celebrate last night: a wildly successful tour, a new album with the Highwomen, an emotive performance of her single “Girl,” and the honor of being the most nominated artist at the CMAs. But when she got her moment on stage to accept Album of the Year, she decided to use her time to pay tribute to Busbee, her longtime collaborator and friend with whom she co-produced Girl and who died in September. “I would be really remiss if I didn’t mention a huge facet of why this album sounds the way it does and we miss him so dearly,” Morris said. She went on to thank his wife Jess and their daughters, making sure that, even in Busbee’s absence, their names still rang out from the stage. M.M.
Old Dominion may have won their second Vocal Group of the Year award last night, but their aggressively low-key style remains one of country’s great unexplained mysteries. It was hard to watch their lethargic performance of the single “One Man Band” without letting your mind drift to how you should probably call your parents, or what you’re going to have for dinner, or the creeping sensation of existential dread you feel over rising sea levels. To add insult to inertia, the band performed the song against the backdrop of an empty auditorium — an unintentionally hilarious joke that appeared to be completely lost on those onstage. J.F.
Last year, both Keith Urban and Kelsea Ballerini delivered big performances at the CMA Awards with tons of production, and in Ballerini’s case, a full dance troupe. This time, both decided to scale it back to solo, acoustic performances reminiscent of Nashville’s famed songwriter rounds. That’s no easy task on such a big show. Urban delivered his nostalgic current hit “We Were” standing up at a microphone on the sparse main stage, while Ballerini sat alone on a small b-stage to sing “Homecoming Queen.” Both performances cut through all the noise and served as reminders of how vital the human connection remains to country music. H.K.