“No drama, just music.” That’s what an online marketing campaign promised for the 54th CMA Awards, in this year of utter chaos, struggle, and extreme loss. For three hours, we could all forget the “weight of the world.”
Except, in reality, it was less of a return to normal and more of an opportunity to nap in the warm glow of a muted TV — very little of the show rose to the level of something capable of summoning actual emotion. With its jocular hosts, intimate live audience of nominees, guests, and seat-fillers, and masks just out of camera view, the 2020 CMAs took a big swing at appearing “normal”…and missed.
In spite of the Country Music Association’s best efforts, there was behind-the-scenes drama in every possible sense. Ahead of the show, at least four people who were supposed to perform were diagnosed with Covid (which calls into question the wisdom of trying to host a live event with a bunch of people at the moment). Among those counted out were Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, Musician of the Year winner Jenee Fleenor, Lee Brice, and a band member of Rascal Flatts. The trio Lady A also bailed out of an abundance of caution after someone in their camp tested positive.
Even so, Covid — a virus that’s killed nearly 250,000 Americans — was obliquely referenced as part of a “very strange year” on more than one occasion. Dang, man, that’s a bummer, sorry to hear about it.
All this tone-deafness was cranked up to the max in the show’s opening medley, a tribute to the late Charlie Daniels featuring Dierks Bentley, Ashley McBryde, Brothers Osborne, and Jason Aldean. While they pulled out some interesting Daniels cuts like “Trudy” and “Texas” to complement the ringer “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” the whole thing felt off. The country has never been so dangerously divided as it’s been this week, and yet the show opened by honoring a guy who spent the last decade-plus peddling paranoid conspiracy theories about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. What was that about “no drama,” again?
On the heels of the Daniels tribute came a performance by Morgan Wallen, who lost a high-profile Saturday Night Live slot in October for smooching a few coeds in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and then, mere weeks later, was angrily posting about folks celebrating the presidential defeat of Donald Trump. Wallen’s got star power, no question, but he could stand to temper his online persona and figure out how to be a less sleepy TV performer, should SNL call him back.
As for the CMA Awards’ co-hosts, Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker, they were totally fine, even if their jokes landed a little flat in the diet Golden Globes setup of this year’s awards, versus the packed arenas of years past. “Too much in this world has been pulling us apart, sometimes more than six feet,” McEntire said in their monologue, which is probably true. (We came here for escapism, Reba, stop hitting us with reality.)
There were good performances: Jon Pardi did a rip-roaring tribute to the late Joe Diffie, an early casualty of Covid, with the hilarious and horny truck song “Pickup Man”; Ashley McBryde gave a lovely, understated performance of “One Night Standards” and its frank description of a no-strings-attached physical encounter; Brothers Osborne raised the energy level with a lean and mean rendition of “All Night”; and Ingrid Andress got choked up as she finished the orchestral overhaul of her hit “More Hearts Than Mine.”
Gabby Barrett embraced her inner Michael Jackson in full Dangerous-era gold chains and square shoulders, singing with Charlie Puth on her vicious breakout hit “I Hope.” They sounded great together, but Puth generally seems like the guy who brings you a hot cup of cocoa, not a duet partner on an earth-scorching breakup song.
Luke Combs was one of the night’s big winners, earning Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year honors and seeming genuinely uncertain how to accept those prizes this particular year. But his rendition of “Cold as You” demonstrated why he’s the superstar of the moment, bursting with personality and grunge-rock swagger.
But the performances that really stood out did more with less. Miranda Lambert left the band at home and sang with two guitarists (including songwriter Luke Dick) for an intimate “Settling Down” that felt more like seeing the superstar at a small venue. Likewise, Chris Stapleton and wife Morgane sang “Starting Over” around one microphone, somehow capturing the desperate loneliness of now and hammering home the necessity of clinging to the people we love if we’re ever going to survive.
There were also a lot of tributes, in a year that’s seen particularly heavy losses. The aforementioned Daniels medley kicked things off, Little Big Town sang Kenny Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man,” and co-hosts Rucker and McEntire sang Mac Davis’ “In the Ghetto,” for some reason, even though — as people smarter than me already pointed out — “A Little Less Conversation” and “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me” were there for the taking. Charley Pride, who’s still alive and kicking at 86 (thank goodness), got to share the stage with Jimmie Allen as he accepted the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award and sang “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.”
Curiously absent was any mention of John Prine, who died in April due to the coronavirus. Though perhaps not as commercially big as some of the other performers, Prine’s songwriting legacy has still been a thread through the last few generations of country music, with Johnny Cash, George Strait, and Miranda Lambert all recording his work. “While there may be a number of artists who have had more commercial success than John, there are very few who achieved more artistically,” Prine’s label Oh Boy Records tweeted at the start of the show tonight, and it’s hard to argue with that.
Still, the CMA Awards tried to serve as a balm. Thomas Rhett, Chris Tomlin, and Reba McEntire sang the spiritual song “Be a Light,” which offered as a vague solution for the world’s ills: “in a world of hate, be a light.”
But the real lights ended up being winners Maren Morris and Eric Church, who actually took a moment to look outside themselves and illuminate larger issues. Morris, winning her first Female Vocalist of the Year award, chose to put the spotlight on black women working in country, including Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Rhiannon Giddens, and Brittney Spencer. “You’ve made this genre so, so beautiful,” she said.
Church, meanwhile, took his first Entertainer of the Year prize and felt conflicted about everything else happening. “This award has been about the loss of this year, the loss of life, loss of playing shows,” he said. “The win is, we were all here tonight together, as country music, in person live, not on Zoom. I believe it’s gonna be music that brings us out of this. That is the one thing that’s gonna save the entire world.”
Coming at the end of the night, it was a particularly hopeful sentiment, one aimed at drawing the people in the room and at home a little closer together. But even Church seemed to realize things were far from the desired normal. “If there was ever a year not to win this award,” he mused.