We’ve come an improbably long way since the 2020 CMAs — when multiple performers dropped out ahead of the show because of COVID-19 exposures and positive tests, the event caught heat for a lack of masks among the audience of performers, and one of those performers, Charley Pride, even died from COVID-19 shortly after the event. Now, thanks to widespread vaccination, pulling off a COVID-safe awards show is much less of a tall order (even if the CMAs aren’t requiring performers to be vaccinated, and a good number likely aren’t). But some of the 2020 CMAs’ problems still persist.
For one, there’s Morgan Wallen, who was caught on camera saying a racist slur in February, just months after he won the CMA Award for New Artist of the Year as the only white man within one of the more diverse categories that year. After being barred from the ACM and CMT Awards, Wallen made his return to the country awards circuit at the CMAs — nominated in Album of the Year, where he was eligible to recognize his collaborators on January’s Dangerous. (Wallen wasn’t eligible for solo awards like Male Vocalist of the Year and wasn’t allowed to attend the awards.) Beyond Wallen, there’s the larger lack of diversity at the CMAs, where Black nominees make up a minuscule fraction of the total pool and rarely turn those nominations into wins. Not to mention women — or really anyone who isn’t a white man selling out arenas — who struggle to catch nominations and win in top categories like Entertainer and Album of the Year. While some parts of the CMAs felt like the same show in a different year, others gave hope that change might be slowly, incrementally coming. Here are the highs, lows, and whoas of the night.
LOW: The CMAs snubbed Color of Change’s calls to action.
Ahead of the evening ceremony, Rolling Stone reported that Color of Change, a nonprofit working toward racial equity in music, reached out to the CMAs about a “racial equity audit” in the weeks leading up to the awards — before the CMAs shut down contact. “We have to hold them accountable,” Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, told Rolling Stone, announcing a petition to call on the CMAs to update its policies toward racial equity, including around membership. The CMAs, meanwhile, maintained to Rolling Stone that the 2021 awards would “highlight and celebrate the rich diversity of perspective that makes up country music.” With Morgan Wallen on the list of nominees, alongside very few Black musicians, that rang a little empty.
WHOA: Miranda Lambert reminds us why we love her.
Sixteen years ago, Miranda Lambert announced herself as a force to be reckoned with in country with a performance of “Kerosene” at the 2005 CMAs. She returned to that song to open the show this year — along with her hits “Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Bluebird,” “Little Red Wagon,” and “Gunpowder & Lead,” in a stellar career-spanning medley (and an equally stellar blue floral outfit with red fringe). The medley proved why Lambert has been one of country’s most enduring and widely appreciated stars since that debut, from the poison-tongued breakup anthems to the easygoing ballads. And all on her birthday, no less!
LOW: Luke Bryan starts slow.
Luke Bryan had a lot of pressure as the CMAs’ first solo host in 18 years, since Vince Gill’s last gig in 2003. His opening monologue didn’t quite overcome that pressure. Despite his years on TV on American Idol, Bryan stumbled over his lines and just didn’t land many jokes — except one about which country stars may be “immunized,” quoting unvaccinated Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and earning a side-eye from Carrie Underwood. The highlight of the opening, though? A playful guest appearance by Bryan’s fellow Idol judges Lionel Richie and Katy Perry, who thought he needed a bit of help presenting Single of the Year. (They were right.)
WHOA: Eric Church (and Joanna Cotten) burning up “Heart on Fire.”
Yes, Eric Church was a safe choice for Entertainer of the Year in 2020. At the same time, if you had any doubts he was one of country’s top performers, he more than silenced those on the CMAs stage this year. Church’s rendition of “Heart on Fire” captured the electric energy of his live shows, complete with literal fire and a guitar solo. And it all culminated in a heated sing-off between Church and longtime backing vocalist Joanna Cotten, the keystone to his live band. Can we get her a trophy too?
HIGH: Okay, that Luke Bryan bit is pretty good.
Richie and Perry’s appearances turned all that talk about Bryan solo hosting into a bit throughout the night, where celebrities would appear to present with him because they thought he needed the help. Sure, it’s corny, but it also gave way to some objectively funny moments. One: Former CMAs co-host Darius Rucker joking he needed to take the gig to get tickets to the show. Another: Elle King “saving” Bryan’s “male ass.” “You can’t be a dude doing all these intros in 2021,” she joked. “Come on man! This isn’t the 1994 CMAs!”
WHOA: Jimmie Allen wins a better trophy.
Two days after getting eliminated from Dancing With the Stars, Jimmie Allen got to take home one trophy at the CMAs: for New Artist of the Year. Allen’s star has only risen since his first nomination last year thanks to his June album Bettie James Gold Edition, the hit Brad Paisley duet “Freedom Was a Highway,” and a win for New Male Artist of the Year at April’s ACM Awards, making the CMA win a fitting cap to this stage of his career. Not to mention, he makes history as just the second Black artist ever to win the award, after Darius Rucker in 2009. All that importance wasn’t lost on Allen — he instantly teared up during his acceptance speech, thanking his late father and recounting when he attended the 50th CMAs to watch Charley Pride before eventually performing with him last year. And later in the night, he inaugurated his new title with a spot-on performance of “Freedom Was a Highway.”
LOW: The (likely) level of vaccination on stage during Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood’s duet.
HIGH: Nicole Kidman rocking out during Keith Urban’s performance of “Wild Hearts.”
The high-octane performance was dedicated to “the dreamers” of country music, but really it was also for his wife.
WHOA: Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer, and Madeline Edwards look and sound stunning.
Mickey Guyton’s “Love My Hair” is already a major statement in country music, foregrounding the experiences of Black women, who often get ignored or written out of the genre. Her CMAs performance of the song turned it into an even bigger moment, with Guyton tapping fellow singers Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards to join her (in likely the first time ever that three Black women graced the CMAs stage alone). Faith Fennidy, who inspired the song after being sent home from school for having braids, introduced the trio, calling Guyton’s song “how you turn something very painful into something very positive.” Indeed, the performance that followed was a celebration, with the three singers commanding attention in white gowns and their natural hair, weaving their powerful voices into beautiful harmonies. It was a new sort of moment for the CMAs, and one of the night’s most special.
HIGH: The passion in Chris Stapleton’s “Cold” performance.
The belting! The guitar solo! The strings section! Nothing cold about this one, folks.
HIGH: Luke Combs shows why he’s “Doin’ This.”
Hours before he earned Entertainer of the Year, Luke Combs entertained with a passionate performance of “Doin’ This,” his love letter to singing country music. It’s slow-burning ballads like this where the singer-songwriter’s huge voice shines the best, shifting from tender in the verses to explosive in the choruses. Along with being a case for why Combs is doin’ this, it’s a damn good example of how to do it, too.
WHOA: Who cares why Jennifer Hudson is here, because she’s great!
Yes, Jennifer Hudson appeared at the Country Music Association Awards to perform a tribute to Aretha Franklin’s influence on country music, pegged to her star turn in Respect and conveniently amid Oscar season. Hudson’s husky performance of “Night Life,” a Willie Nelson song covered by Franklin, would’ve been more than enough, but then she kicked things up a few more notches for “You Are My Sunshine,” with guitarist Chris Stapleton brave enough to jump in to trade some vocals. Hudson made it all look easy, as only she can; the shocked faces of some of country’s best singers in the audience confirmed what a special performance it was.
HIGH: The amount of new talent on stage.
As of late, country awards have felt like a tug-of-war between the Establishment stars winning the top awards, like Chris Stapleton and Eric Church, and the new(er) talent winning upset awards and delivering highlight performances. One of the best things this year’s CMAs did was properly spotlight that new talent. Four out of five New Artist of the Year nominees performed, plus other rising musicians like Breland, Brittney Spencer, and Madeline Edwards. Lainey Wilson turned her presentation slot into a “Strawberry Wine” singalong with Deanna Carter. After performing earlier in the night, Carly Pearce eked out a tearful surprise Female Vocalist of the Year win, her first, against heavy hitters like Lambert and Maren Morris. Stapleton may be the headline coming out of the night, but this slate is who you really ought to be paying attention to.
HIGH: T.J. Osborne’s out-and-proud return.
This marked the first CMAs since T.J. Osborne, half of Brothers Osborne, became the first musician on a major country label to come out as gay. It gave a heightened sense of importance to his band’s win in Vocal Duo of the Year, their first in three years. “To have you all support me, it really does feel like love wins tonight,” he said. Later in the night, TJ and his brother, John, gave a heartfelt performance of their single “Younger Me” — Brothers Osborne’s first release since T.J. came out, a letter to his younger, closeted self. “I wish my younger me could see me now,” T.J. said.
LOW: All the country pandering.
Country songs about how country the singer is are nothing new, but hearing so many of them in quick succession — e.g., at awards shows — always puts the phenomenon in stark relief. This year’s offenders include Zac Brown Band with “Same Boat” (which, yes, does sound like “Chicken Fried”), Blake Shelton with “Come Back As a Country Boy,” Old Dominion with “I Was on a Boat That Day,” Thomas Rhett with “Country Again,” and Luke Bryan’s “Up,” all comprising five of the night’s more forgettable performances.
HIGH: Chris Stapleton’s trophy count.
Stapleton has been a CMA favorite since his debut in 2015 when he shockingly won both New Artist and Album of the Year. That goodwill hasn’t dried up yet, with the back-to-basics singer-songwriter taking home four more trophies: Single and Song of the Year for “Starting Over,” Album of the Year for Starting Over, and Male Vocalist of the Year. Stapleton, not big on the celebrity of country music, accepted the trophies with quick, humble speeches, passing off to others when he could, like co-writer Mike Henderson or co-producer Dave Cobb. “I don’t know what to say, man,” he remarked upon accepting his Male Vocalist trophy, solo. “I’m running out of words.”
WHOA: Luke Combs wins an upset Entertainer of the Year.
After Stapleton won his other four categories, Entertainer of the Year seemed all but fated. Instead, the CMAs pulled a last-minute surprise, with Luke Combs taking home the top honor for the first time. It’s easy to forget — between the chart-toppers and broken records — that Combs is still a fairly new face in country; he only won the CMA for New Artist of the Year in 2018, and his latest release, What You See Is What You Get, is just his second album. The 31-year-old is also by far the youngest of the five Entertainer of the Year nominees, both in age and experience in the industry. Yes, the CMAs and the Entertainer of the Year category, in particular, have a lot of work to do — it’s still been decades since a woman or a person of color won the award — but in its own way, Combs’s win was still a welcome trickle of change.