Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic crowded all the major country awards shows — the Academy of Country Music Awards, Country Music Association Awards, and Country Music Television Music Awards — into the fall. With performance and venue restrictions on top of it all, it was hard for a show to stand out (unless it was for a bad reason, like the COVID-addled CMAs). Now in 2021, the stars and audiences are (hopefully) vaccinated and the shows are back into their regular slots. At April’s ACM Awards, this meant a low-stakes show full of fun live performances and not much else. Two months later, the CMT Music Awards brought more of the same, touting a collaboration-stacked bill full of country’s biggest and brightest (except for Maren Morris and Gabby Barrett, who had to drop out for personal reasons), and a few awards for music videos too. It wasn’t a show to remember, but it was still indeed a show — something that seemed far out of reach last June. Here are the highs, lows, and whoas of the 2021 CMT Music Awards.
LOW: Lady A sets the bar low.
Band-name mess aside, Lady A’s output as of late has just been a snooze, far from the emotional hits like “Need You Now” that they made their name on. Opening song “Like a Lady” is unremarkable country-radio filler, and singer Hillary Scott’s performance was too shaky to turn it into a moment. An appearance by rising star Carly Pearce was a bright spot, but couldn’t save the opening number; the Shindellas deserved way more than ten seconds in the spotlight. At least Lindsey Ell’s guitar solo rocked (and reminded us that country shows need more of those).
HIGH: But Chris Stapleton gets things back on track.
Not that the CMTs, one of the more pop-oriented of country’s awards shows, would’ve let it happen, but Chris Stapleton’s performance of “Arkansas” could’ve actually opened the show. Stapleton has a voice that can’t miss, and his band’s performance in the round was a true barn burner, complete with a pedal-steel solo. “That’s how you get a party started, right?” host Kane Brown asked afterward. Yes, that’s how.
WHOA: Hailey Whitters’s (abbreviated) moment in the spotlight.
One of country’s biggest critical darlings of 2020, Americana-tinged singer-songwriter Hailey Whitters was a perfect choice to kick things off at the Ram Trucks Side Stage. Here’s hoping intrigued viewers check out the rollicking full version of “Fillin’ My Cup,” though (and its extremely fun video, too).
HIGH: Luke Combs once again delivers.
No matter how many times Luke Combs performs his beer-soaked breakup anthem “Cold As You” at awards shows, the song remains as reliable as a go-to haunt.
WHOA: Linda Martell gets her much-earned CMT Equal Play Award.
Mickey Guyton didn’t mince words as she introduced Linda Martell, this year’s winner of the CMT Equal Play Award and the highest-charting Black woman ever in country music. “All of her accomplishments came in the face of the constant indignities she endured as a Black female country artist,” said Guyton, who can attest to those same struggles 50 years later. Martell couldn’t attend to accept the award, but the CMTs still honored the icon with a mini-documentary on her career, featuring an interview with her (“The very first chord of the guitar, I knew it was gonna be all right,” she said, remembering being the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry) along with praise from musicians like Rissi Palmer, Rhiannon Giddens, Darius Rucker, and Jennifer Nettles. And rather than paint Martell’s story rosily, Guyton reminded viewers of a sad truth. “Her career was cut short for just one reason: the color of her skin,” she said of Martell, who released just one album in 1970. Over 50 years later, it’s better to see her get her flowers late than never.
HIGH: Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall perform The Marfa Tapes how it’s meant to be heard: around a campfire.
The fact that their rendition of “Tequila Does” was prerecorded may have been disappointing, but the trio nonetheless brought the low-key, late-night vibes that make these songs sound best.
LOW: This again?
One of the most oft-tread paths to country success is music that insists it’s the real stuff, a return to country’s roots in the face of pop dilution. But who’s to say music like that — a diluted performance in its own way — is more authentic than country that doesn’t hit listeners over the head with worn-out lyrical signifiers? Thomas Rhett’s new song “Country Again,” the title track off corresponding album Country Again: Side A, promises that same brand of “back to basics,” but it led him to one of the most boring performances of the night. If so-called “real” country is so much better, Rhett’s performance itself should’ve made that case, too.
WHOA: Gladys Knight delivers the most high-energy performance of the night.
If last year’s glorious Verzuz with Patti LaBelle didn’t already prove it, Gladys Knight still has it, as she showed once again on the CMTs stage. Mickey Guyton’s “Cross Country” performance with Breland was a bit shaky (but good on the newcomer for what was hopefully the first of many big-stage performances), but 77-year-old Knight steered the set back as only she can, overflowing with energy and a glowing smile as she dueted Pips hit “Friendship Train” with Guyton. Surely someone will complain that it “wasn’t country,” but it’s hard for that critique to hold up when the pair brought more vocal fireworks and owned the stage better than any of the night’s other performers.
WHOA: H.E.R. crashes yet another awards show.
At this point, if there’s an awards show going on, you can count on H.E.R. to be there. Grammys? Oscars? CMT Awards? That’s right, the R&B singer-songwriter performed with Chris Stapleton, leading even more people to wonder who she — sorry, H.E.R. — is in the first place.
HIGH: Carrie Underwood and Needtobreathe take us to church.
Carrie Underwood’s full pivot to church music may be a bit confusing, but it’s certainly brought some huge awards-show performances. That didn’t stop on the CMT stage, where she joined with Christian country-rockers Needtobreathe for a powerful, predictably huge performance of their duet “I Wanna Remember.”
LOW: Where are the standout speeches?
Maybe the biggest sign that awards shows have returned to normal is that most of the night’s speeches involved a rattling off of requisite thank-yous without much else. At least we could once again count on Gladys Knight, who shouted “Congratulations, Gabbyyyyy!” while “proudly” accepting on behalf of an absent Gabby Barrett.
LOW: Luke Bryan performs glorified karaoke.
Luke Bryan is the Academy of Country Music’s reigning Entertainer of the Year, but you couldn’t tell from his CMT performance — a stale, sappy performance of “Down to One” that didn’t come off as much more than karaoke with a backing band. As an American Idol judge should be able to tell you, that’s never good.
WHOA: How about these hosts?
Our hosts were more than a little all over the place throughout the night. Unlike, say, friends and collaborators Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton, who co-helmed the recent ACM Awards, the most chemistry between Kelsea Ballerini and Kane Brown was the fact that they had the same initials — a fact that they made too many bits out of. Kelsea Ballerini loosened up as the night went on, but the fun she had hosting didn’t translate to her melodramatic performance of “I Quit Drinking” with LANY’s Paul Klein. Brown, meanwhile, seemed nervous and stuck to his script; his most entertaining moment came during his closing performance of “Famous Friends” with Chris Young, which at least proved how he ended up the most-awarded artist of the night (earning Male Video of the Year and Collaborative Video of the Year with Young). They didn’t bring any of the night’s major highs or lows — so, in the end, maybe they were fitting for a middling outing like the CMTs.