While the action that plays out on camera at the CMA Awards is usually geared to reap maximum ratings, there’s more going on at the actual event that never makes it to viewers at home. Amid ambitious performances and some lackluster canned instruments and, oh yeah, the presentation of a few awards, here are five things we noticed while sitting in the audience at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for the 52nd edition of country music’s biggest night.
Donald Trump’s Low-Key Cameo
CMA Awards hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley maintained their promise of keeping things light and avoiding any political comments in their opening monologue this year. That meant no mention of President Trump or the midterms or gun control or any other divisive issue. The evening wasn’t completely Trump-free, though — he made a low-key cameo on page 12 of the CMA Awards program handed out to the audience.
Well, the @CountryMusic Awards didn’t go there on politics in the monologue or performances, but @realDonaldTrump did show up in the program. It doesn’t sound like his writing, though. #cmaawards pic.twitter.com/dk0oNvOqGy
— Hunter Kelly (@hunterkelly) November 15, 2018
In a letter that bore little resemblance to his Twitter updates, Trump hailed country music saying, “It inspires millions across our country and around the world with its soul and energy and has meaningful impacts on those of diverse backgrounds.” The letter goes on to call the genre “remarkable music that unites people throughout the world.” Diverse backgrounds? Uniting people throughout the world? That’s pretty rich, coming from Mr. “Build the Wall” himself.
In fairness, the CMA Awards program includes a letter from the sitting president every year, so previous editions included greetings from Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Even so, it was jarring to see Trump’s face in the program given the aggressively apolitical tone of the show.
Kenny Chesney’s Absence Explained
Kenny Chesney won Musical Event of the Year for his collaboration with David Lee Murphy on “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” but Murphy was alone when he accepted his trophy during the pre-telecast portion of the show. He said, “If it wasn’t for Kenny, none of this would have happened. He’s with his family in East Tennessee, and our prayers are with him.”
Chesney had to bow out of his planned CMA Awards performance with Murphy due to a death in his family, as a tweet from the CMA revealed. (When reached for further comment, Chesney’s rep said that tweet was the official word.)
CMA Musical Event of the Year winner & Entertainer of the Year nominee @KennyChesney will be unable to appear on tonight's telecast due to a death in the family.
— CMA Country Music (@CountryMusic) November 14, 2018
Chesney did accept his CMA trophy via tweet saying, “Sometimes you hear songs & they just feel good. Occasionally one that feels good says something that people need to hear. That’s how I felt about Everything’s Gonna Be Alright when I heard it. Proud to have been part of this with my friend.”
Live Makes the World Go Round
The CMA Awards are broadcast to an audience of millions, so that’s obviously the first priority for producers staging the show. For sound engineers, coordinating literally hundreds of instruments to make them sound great for a three-hour television show is a nearly impossible and largely thankless task. Plus, if something goes wrong, it’ll live on YouTube forever, which is why many artists opt to use pre-recorded backing tracks (and sometimes vocals) to make sure everything goes well. It makes for pretty good TV, but, when you’re actually sitting in the audience, those mimed band performances can be a drag to watch.
When artists actually played live on the show, the shift in energy inside the Bridgestone arena was palpable. The audience came alive as newly-minted Country Music Hall of Fame member Ricky Skaggs and his bluegrass band Kentucky Thunder fired up “Black Eyed Suzie.” Chris Stapleton’s fiery reading of “Friendship” and “I’ll Take You There” with Maren Morris and the legendary fount of energy that is Mavis Staples had people all over the arena literally dancing in the aisles. Even the live strings and tight harmonies of Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha helped breathe new life into “Meant to Be,” a song that has exerted a death grip on the Number One spot on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart for nearly a year.
Watching the show back on DVR the next morning, it’s clear that energy generated in the room from the live performances definitely made for more engaging TV, too. Here’s hoping this message gets through for more performers in 2019.
Classic Country Sing-Alongs
While viewers at home were watching some messages from the CMA Awards’ fine sponsors, the audience at the show was treated to a string of vintage performance clips from the show’s rich archives. The Judds’ 1985 performance of “Rockin’ with the Rhythm of the Rain” was the first video shown, followed by Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” Ronnie Milsap’s “It Was Almost Like a Song” and Randy Travis’s “Forever and Ever, Amen.” The crowd clapped along enthusiastically as they watched Alabama’s “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” light up the big screen, and a classic performance of George Strait’s “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” provided the biggest audience sing-along moment of the night.
Note to the CMA producers: You’re sitting on a gold mine! Work some of these snippets into next year’s show and share this goodness with the audience at home.
Artists Loving Artists Loving Country Music
We’ve heard it before, but country artists really are fans of other country artists. Whether it was Keith Urban singing along to every word of Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert’s “Drowns the Whiskey” or Thomas Rhett standing alone on the front row and waving at the stage as Midland paid tribute to Burt Reynolds with that immortal Smokey and the Bandit jam “East Bound and Down,” these superstars were truly excited to soak up their peers’ talents.
The artists and industry heavyweights in the front floor sections were on their feet for the majority of the night, too. The love spilled over into the commercial breaks with artists milling about to catch up and take photos with one another, to the point that show producers had a hard time getting people back to their seats before the end of the commercial break.
This world is far from perfect. The country community has its issues — country radio’s chronic lack of airplay for women, for one — but watching this show play out in person is a reminder that “It City” Nashville is still in many ways a small town, and the country format continues to function as an extended, imperfect family.