The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of the 2022 CMA Awards

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

The CMAs were a night of expectations. Going into the show, the most-nominated artist, at six, was newcomer Lainey Wilson; a slew of starry collaborations were on the slate, from Kelsea Ballerini, Kelly Clarkson, and Carly Pearce joining forces to Katy Perry stepping foot on the CMAs stage with Thomas Rhett; and multiple major country-world losses hung over over the show, from Loretta Lynn to Naomi Judd. The yearly question of whether a woman would finally win Entertainer of the Year, with two once again nominated, loomed on the awards side, as did whether country music would welcome back Morgan Wallen. There was even the question of whether Maren Morris would attend at all, after saying she might not due to her feud with Brittany Aldean. On the lighter end, there was anticipation around the debut of Peyton Manning, co-hosting with returner Luke Bryan. Fans wanted a lot out of the CMAs, and they largely rose to the occasion — but as is always the case with this show, the disappointments were glaring.

HIGH: A Loretta Lynn tribute that sparkles.

The show kicked off the only way it could: by honoring two-time Entertainer of the Year Loretta Lynn, one of the all-time great country songwriters and performers. While a Grand Ole Opry tribute two weeks ago featured dozens of musicians, the CMAs were more pared back, with a trio of women who followed the path Lynn paved. Each showcased a different part of Lynn’s appeal. Carrie Underwood brought the vocal power for her take on “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” Miranda Lambert performed “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” with attitude, and Reba McEntire was a consummate showwoman, commanding the stage for “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” The three then split a straightforward take on Lynn’s signature, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” to remind viewers of her songwriting power. The whole performance shimmered — literally too, with surely enough sparkles to please Lynn. And extra props to Carly Pearce, who performed a second tribute to her Kentucky icon later in the night with a strong take on her song “Dear Miss Loretta.”

HIGH: Peyton Manning jokes with Luke Bryan like he’s a brother.
Ideally, Luke Bryan wouldn’t be hosting the CMAs again, but if he’s gonna do it, at least they realized he needed a co-host. After a nervous start (and some requisite football comparisons), Peyton Manning proved to be the man for the job. His running bit for the night was ribbing Bryan like he ribs his usual co-host Eli Manning, and boy did it land. “I keep tellin’ him he’s like a brother to me,” Manning joked at one point. “He doesn’t understand that’s not a compliment.” We may not be supporting “Luke Bryan for president,” as Manning joked during the opening, but we would take another year of Manning as host.

HIGH: We love all the women of Lindeville.

One of the many great things about Ashley McBryde’s new album, Lindeville, is the way she uses her new country stardom to spotlight her own favorite musicians. She did the same on the CMAs stage, bringing Pillbox Patti, Brandy Clark, and Caylee Hammack to share in the album’s rousing take on “When Will I Be Loved” — complete with a ripping guitar solo from John Osborne.

WHOA: Jo Dee Messina had us at “Heads Carolina.”

Cole Swindell needed help. Luckily, Jo Dee Messina was there. Swindell’s performance of “She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” a fun pop-country hit, felt like glorified karaoke, even on his flashy, intimate stage. Then Messina made a surprise appearance and wasted no time, delivering one of the most captivating minutes of music of the night. Consider it a reminder why she was good enough to inspire Swindell’s song in the first place.

WHOA: Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood bring the fireworks.

Miranda Lambert brought her Vegas flashiness to the CMAs stage, performing a fiery take on “Geraldene” with choreography, flashing lights, and, yes, fireworks. Then, a few moments later, Carrie Underwood took the stage with more fireworks for her raw new single “Hate My Heart.” Two of country’s most explosive divas, time and again.

LOW: What Naomi Judd tribute?
The CMAs love a good tribute, but they missed out on a major one this year to the late Naomi Judd, who died in April and changed country-pop as one half of the Judds. While the ceremony allowed her daughter and bandmate Wynonna to present an award, Naomi’s name was otherwise barely mentioned.

LOW: Luke Bryan, again?

We already had to endure him as host for another year. But a performance, too? Like Bryan’s hosting job, his rendition of the stale “Country On” was equally strained. Not even all the neon on the stage could distract from that.

WHOA: Tipping our hat to this headwear.
You can usually expect some nice hats at a country event, but tonight blew it out of the water. Cody Johnson, Parker McCollum, and Alan Jackson looked dapper in their cowboy hats, while Lainey Wilson and Chris Stapleton adorned theirs with flashy feathers. Even Katy Perry donned a hat to round out her countrified look for her duet with Thomas Rhett.

LOW: Hardy is no match for Lainey Wilson.

Hardy and Lainey Wilson went theatrical for “Wait in the Truck,” their hit duet praised for its raw take on domestic abuse, outfitting the stage with an actual truck and house. It was a necessary distraction from Hardy, whose nasally, off-key performance simply couldn’t carry the song live. It was disappointing for Wilson, one of the most powerful new voices in country, and for the song’s message.

HIGH: Kelsea Ballerini’s singles night.

Kelsea Ballerini gave us the best kind of awards-show collaboration: some friends, having fun, singing a song. She got help from two other prominent recent divorcées, Carly Pearce and Kelly Clarkson, to sing their new collaboration, “You’re Drunk, Go Home.” The boisterous performance radiated joy, from the women’s smiles to Clarkson ad-libbing byes and “that’s right.”

LOW: Morgan Wallen’s performance isn’t proof of anything.
This is the man we were in such a rush to get back into the country Establishment?

HIGH: Big ballads, bigger voices.

Hope you kept those tissues nearby, because it was a night of ballads — and those balladeers sang. Cody Johnson kicked off the trend with his Single of the Year winner “’Til You Can’t,” a middling song that grew wings and took flight live, thanks to his stellar, poignant baritone. Luke Combs did as Luke Combs does on an awards show and gave a wildly impressive vocal performance like it was nothing, this time to his love song “The Kind of Love We Make.” And the Patty Loveless show capped things off, as the traditional country icon somehow out-sang Chris Stapleton with their haunting take on “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.”

WHOA: Lainey Wilson hasn’t gotten over her wins.

Wilson has been the toast of country music for months now, since her strong showing at the ACMs. Still, she was noticeably emotional both times she took the stage to accept her wins, for New Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year. She dedicated the latter to her father, who attended with her after a medical scare, and went on to address her recent success in the genre. “I know I’m new to a lot of folks,” she said, “but I won’t let y’all down, I can promise you.”

HIGH: For those about to rock, the CMAs salute you.
The CMAs got over the late-show drag with some good old-fashioned rock and roll. First, Brothers Osborne took the stage to cover the Rolling Stones with two of the best singers in Nashville, the War and Treaty. Sure, the song’s called “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (But I Like It),” but this transcended rock, thanks to Michael and Tanya Trotter’s massive, show-stopping vocals. The momentum continued with a fun, if fairly expected, tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis by Elle King and the Black Keys, complete with King standing on a flaming piano.

HIGH: Alan Jackson is just a country fan.
Alan Jackson is one of the sweetest performers in country music, and the tribute to him followed suit. Carrie Underwood introduced with “Remember When” and a touching speech noting that he was her first concert, followed by Dierks Bentley, Jon Pardi, and Lainey Wilson running through his hits (including Pardi’s touching “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”). Jackson, honored with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, brought the show home with “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and a heartwarming speech about how, really, he just loves country music as much as any other listener. “I’ve just been such a fan of this music, and I wanted to come to Nashville and try to carry it on,” he said, before hoisting his trophy. “I’m still livin’ that honky-tonk dream, y’all.”

LOW: The CMAs retreat to what’s familiar.
When Lainey Wilson collected her Female Vocalist of the Year trophy, it seemed like the story of the night could be a new wave of young country talent, between her wins and Cody Johnson’s. But as the CMAs tend to, they went back to what they know, giving Male Vocalist of the Year to perennial winner Chris Stapleton and Entertainer of the Year to Luke Combs. The latter felt especially disappointing at a show that awarded few women, with Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood up for EOTY yet again. Yes, it’s an achievement for Combs to win a second year in a row. It’s also another year removed from the last time a woman won the award, in 2011.

The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of the 2022 CMA Awards