Karen Fairchild had to compose herself as she opened the envelope for Album of the Year at the 52nd CMA Awards in Nashville on Wednesday night. Surrounded by her Little Big Town bandmates, she closed her eyes, her face relaxing as though silently giving thanks, then said, gently, “This is for all the little girls writing songs out there.”
The winner was Kacey Musgraves, the only female artist nominated in the category and the first to win it in nearly half a decade. Based on sales alone, that supposedly all-important country music metric, her Golden Hour LP was a massive underdog. But as far as bold artistic leaps of faith go, it was a worthy choice — not that Musgraves seemed any less genuinely surprised for having won because of it.
“This is really, really crazy timing, because I just realized this morning — it sounds like a lie — 10 years ago today I moved to Nashville,” said Musgraves, who took the stage in a suit and tie rather than one of the many long, flowing dresses that populated Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday. “I’m so proud of [Golden Hour]. It’s inspired by this beautiful universe, all of you, and most of all love.”
On a night of flashy performances and all-star crossovers, Musgraves’ victory reveal was one of the most touching interludes, a small gesture made to feel immeasurably big. Though she returned later on for a rendition of “Slow Burn” that was simmering and poised, there were few other moments that matched it for unscripted emotion, save for Carrie Underwood being named Female Vocalist of the Year.
Underwood, who performed a striking “Love Wins” with the help of 30 or so backup singers, was back to share hosting duties with Brad Paisley almost a year to the day after a fall that required roughly 50 stitches in her face — an event that received an uncomfortable parody in the form of a bubble-wrap dress during the monologue. When the camera caught her backstage after the announcement, she was visibly overwhelmed.
“I’ve been blessed with so much in my life. Still, everyday, I’m trying to figure out if I’ve done anything to deserve it,” Underwood said a few moments later, once she’d made her way to the podium. After listing off several individual thanks, she stopped herself and summed things up by adding, “It’s all about family around here.”
The big winner from the night, and not so surprisingly, was Chris Stapleton, who came away with the trophies for Song, Single, and Male Vocalist of the Year. He also mentioned family in accepting the last of those three awards. “I’m real proud of this award, and I try really hard to be a good singer, but I also, I want to thank my kids who put up with me being gone quite a bit and not getting to be as good as a dad as I would always like to be,” Stapleton said. More succcinctly, his producer, Dave Cobb, said in his own speech, “Thank Jesus, Lionel Richie, and my family,” a nod to the fact that Richie was there as a presenter.
Chances are good that Stapleton’s own personal highlight from the night was his all-star performance with Mavis Staples, Maren Morris, and his wife, Morgane. Pairing up his own version of “Friendship” with the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” even the Kentucky native received a lesson or two from the R&B legend’s raspy growl.
Most impressive was the medley that bluegrass hero and newly minted Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Ricky Skaggs played. He traded lightning-fast licks with Paisley, Keith Urban, Marty Stuart, Sierra Hull and John Osborne of Brothers Osborne on classics like “Highway 40 Blues” and “Country Boy.”
As usual, guest appearances were the order of the night, which — as has become tragically normal at country music awards shows these past 12 months — began with a tribute to the victims of a recent mass shooting. In this case, it was the dozen people who died at Borderline Bar in Thousand Oaks, California, on November 8th. Luke Bryan was joined by Luke Combs, Cole Swindell, Lindsay Ell, Chris Janson, Jon Pardi, and Ashley McBryde for “What Makes You Country.” “Alright CMAs, let’s do what we do. This is what country music is all about,” Bryan declared, emphasizing the song’s message of inclusivity and individuality as a calling card for the night.
Save for a further mention of the wildfires currently raging in California, the CMAs otherwise stayed away from politics, a fact that was perhaps inevitable given the industry’s general reluctance to speak on those topics. There would be no surprises comparable to Musgraves’ in the night’s final category, either, as Entertainer of the Year was contested solely by male artists for the second year running.
But here, too, there was a twist — and an extra bit of drama — as the night’s big winner Stapleton came up short, with the victory going instead to Keith Urban, who managed to end things right on message with a teary-eyed acceptance speech that invoked lost loved ones of his own.
“I wish my dad was alive to see this, but I think he’s watching over me tonight,” Urban said, speaking breathlessly as his eyes darting back and forth to his wife, Nicole Kidman, who sat in the front row. “I just feel very, very blessed, very grateful that I get to do what I do. Thank you all of you for coming out. And God bless country music, God bless you.”