The 2018 CMT Artists of the Year special highlighted the accomplishments of country music’s biggest names while shining a light on the issue of gender equality in the genre. This was the first in the event’s eight-year history to feature an all-female list of honorees, bookmarking a year dominated by the #MeToo movement and debate over why women aren’t well represented on country radio.
Alongside the expected accolades and glamour of an awards show, honorees Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Hillary Scott, and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman used the occasion to push for change while celebrating their peers and the genre’s next generation.
After the Pistol Annies’ performance of “Sugar Daddy,” a new cut off their upcoming record Interstate Gospel, Lambert voiced her dedication to supporting other female artists in country music.
“Not a day will go by that I don’t honor and lift up women in this industry,” Lambert said. “I hope they do the same because we have to be there for each other and I think we are.”
One of the most impressive performances of the evening came from Morris and Brandi Carlile, who paid tribute to the late Aretha Franklin with their soulful take on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Honoree Scott was joined by Tori Kelly and gospel singer Kirk Franklin for a joyous medley of Lady Antebellum’s hit “American Honey,” Kelly’s “Never Alone” and Franklin’s “Oh Happy Day.”
Ballerini took the stage with one of her major influences, Alison Krauss, for a haunting version of “Ghost in this House.” The 25-year-old singer-songwriter thanked the tightly-knit community of women in country music for their unwavering support.
“One of the greatest gifts that’s been given to me as a new artist is having people that I grew up listening to, that I’ve watched closely and learned from, turn around and share their stage with me and their platform with me,” Ballerini said in her acceptance speech. “That goes from Shania to Reba to Alison freaking Krauss. I think what I’ve learned is how important it is to lift each other up.”
The night’s musical tribute to CMT Artist of a Lifetime honoree Loretta Lynn featured Martina McBride performing “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” as well as Dierks Bentley and Sheryl Crow’s duet on “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.”
Lynn, who suffered a stroke in 2017, was not in attendance, but her longtime friend Sissy Spacek — who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Lynn in 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter — accepted it on her behalf. “I think Loretta said it best,” Spacek told the audience. “It’s about dadgum time we recognize women.”
Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman took the stage with soul legend Gladys Knight for a moving mashup of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Help Me Make it Through the Night.”
While accepting her award with Schlapman, Fairchild opted to use her platform to highlight up-and-coming women in country. She read off a list of 35 female artists and acts, including Ashley McBryde, Margo Price, Lucie Silvas and Lauren Alaina, before noting that they “are there for you to support and play on the radio, if you want to.”
Kalie Shorr, one of the artists named by Fairchild, noted the importance of having a place where women can see other women being championed.
“There’s so many times when we watch an award show or we listen to the radio and it’s not about us,” Shorr told Rolling Stone Country. “To feel like we’re dominating something is really exciting.”
Underwood was the final honoree of the night, closing out the show with a harmony-driven medley featuring her Cry Pretty 360 tourmates Maddie & Tae and Runaway June.
Beginning with an a cappella take on Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” the performance became a fitting full-circle moment, giving nods to the women who paved the way for a new generation of talents. Maddie & Tae rolled through the Judds’ “Rockin’ with the Rhythm,” Underwood supplied a fiery rendition of Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” and Runaway June revisited Faith Hill’s “Wild One” before they all joined forces on Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” and Underwood’s “Cry Pretty.”
Although it can be argued that honoring only women at a major awards ceremony only shifts the imbalance to the other side, the night was a much-needed celebration of the influential women who have helped mold country music into its current form. Keith Urban and Smokey Robinson were among the male artists who took the stage to voice their support of the night’s honorees.
“There’s a lot of men we’ve come across in this industry that are really passionate about evening the playing field,” Maddie Marlow of Maddie & Tae told Rolling Stone Country prior to the show. “Sticking together will make people take notice. If women continue to be bold, confident and proud of what they’re putting on the table, that will change everything.”
In her acceptance speech, Underwood highlighted the night’s overarching message — talent and hard work, regardless of gender, is what brought her fellow honorees to that podium.
“You are not here because you are women,” she proclaimed. “You are here because you are dang good, and it is an honor to share tonight with you.”