“Play our f-ckin’ records. Please and thank you.”
So read the inside of Jennifer Nettles’ cape on the CMA Awards red carpet, while the back of the Sugarland singer’s suit jacket bore the words “equal play.” Early in the evening, it seemed as if the sartorial statement may indicate a more outspoken tone than in CMAs past. As the night went on, however, it was clear that wasn’t the case.
Conversations about the gulf between the representation of male and female artists on country radio have reached fever pitch in recent years, and this year the CMA Awards tried to catch up. The show dedicated a sizable chunk of the telecast to showcasing women, and even trumpeted the evening as one “celebrating legendary women in country music.”
To that end, producers recruited a truly impressive lineup to open the show with a blockbuster medley. Hosts Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton, and Reba McEntire sang “Those Memories of You,” a song that Parton recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris for their 1987 Trio album, while the Highwomen, Tanya Tucker, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Gretchen Wilson, Crystal Gayle, Terri Clark, and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman offered a mix of signature hits (Evans’ “Born to Fly,” McBride’s “Independence Day”) and influential anthems (Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country”).
But it was business as usual after the medley. The hosts’ opening monologue was funny but mostly toothless, with nary a mention of the gender divide on country radio or why the CMA Awards thought it important to dedicate a night to women in the first place. Award winners did little to clear that up either, which was particularly glaring when Garth Brooks won Entertainer of the Year for the third time in four years and used his speech to talk up Reba McEntire and Luke Combs, without mentioning his fellow EOTY nominee Underwood, the sentimental favorite to win the top prize (even Miranda Lambert publicly stanned for her).
Still, the show wasn’t without its high points. Maren Morris, who performed both solo and with the Highwomen, had the most nominations of any artist this year with six. She won Album of the Year for Girl and used her speech to pay tribute to her producer/songwriter collaborator Busbee, 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,” she said. “We miss him so dearly.”
After her win for New Artist of the Year, Ashley McBryde delivered a heartfelt, concise speech, seemingly nodding to former Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow’s assertion that women artists need to “step up” if they hope to win awards at the rate of their male counterparts. “I once had the pleasure of playing a tribute show for Mr. John Prine,” McBryde said. “He shook my hand and said, ‘You’re real good. You’re no Reba. But you’re real good.’ I cherish those little moments that are like that, that are truth and guidance from voices that we respect and admire. I’m thankful for that and for this and the opportunity to step up.”
After an emotional acoustic performance of her song “Homecoming Queen,” Kelsea Ballerini was joined by Lindsay Ell, Runaway June, Maddie & Tae, McBryde, Carly Pearce and, finally, Little Big Town for a collaborative cover of “Girl Crush,” a song that famously generated country radio controversy of its own for its hints at same-sex relationships. After the performance, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild said of the assembled women, “You’re looking at the future of country music right here.”
Kacey Musgraves’ and Willie Nelson’s performance of “Rainbow Connection” was another bright spot. It also felt like a victory lap for Musgraves, the reigning Album of the Year winner and this year’s Female Vocalist of the Year. Since last year’s CMAs, Musgraves notched an AOTY hat trick with Golden Hour, rounding out the trio with an ACM Award and the Grammy for Album of the Year — all of it done with minimal country radio airplay.
In her acceptance speech, Musgraves was one of few artists to acknowledge the impact of women. “I feel that the female creative spirit, the female energy — it’s really needed right now,” she said. “And so whether it’s me that’s up here or any of the other women in this category, I just think it’s a beautiful thing.”
As has been typical for years now, the CMAs featured a number of unexpected collaborations. The good included Pink and Chris Stapleton, who joined forces on Pink’s “Love Me Anyway.” Dierks Bentley, Sheryl Crow, Chris Janson, Joe Walsh, and John Osborne paid spirited tribute to Kris Kristofferson, who (though not in attendance) won the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, with “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Fighting for the night’s strangest pairing were Lady Antebellum and Halsey, who, with Dobro ace Jerry Douglas, teamed up for Lady A’s “What If I Never Get Over You” and Halsey’s “Graveyard”; and Dolly Parton and Christian pop duo For King and Country performing “God Only Knows.” Any Dolly appearance is more than welcome, but this match-up felt a bit forced.
Several of the off-camera awards were more compelling than the televised ones. Fiddle player Jenee Fleenor, who joined Shelton for “God’s Country,” became the first woman to win Musician of the Year, while Musgraves took home Video of the Year for “Rainbow.” And you can’t talk about country music in 2019 without Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road (Remix)” — though some would love it if you did. The viral collab was named Musical Event of the Year and was awarded to the pair earlier in the day.
While seeing so many of country music’s favorite female artists join forces made for some stellar musical moments, it takes far more than ceding the stage to women for one night to advance gender equality. Wednesday’s CMA Awards may have been made to look like they were full of substance, but without any meaningful commentary — not to mention Brooks edging out Underwood for Entertainer — the affair felt like a whole lot of build-up with little payoff.