My love of country music is practically one of my personality traits. I have a Thomas Rhett song lyric in my instagram bio – he should’ve won the CMA’s Male Artist of the Year Award, just saying. My country playlist on Spotify has over 360 songs, and I’ll never stop raving about the Carrie Underwood concert I went to – she should’ve won CMA’s Entertainer of the Year, by the way. This wasn’t always the case, as, to my friends’ dismay, I went from firmly believing that country was all beer, trucks and line dancing, to a country music fanatic.
This year, I awaited the Country Music Association Awards with anxious anticipation. COVID-19 has taken away a lot this year, and I feared the CMAs would be next. However, like the lessons imparted by the songs, the awards show persevered. The event, which was Wednesday night, included socially-distanced tables of attendees, as well as virtual performances and acceptances from nominees. Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker, who hosted the event, offered lighthearted humor about the situation. The ever-present optimism in country music never fails to boost my mood.
The CMAs also paid tribute to a number of country’s great stars who passed away this year or had a major influence on the genre. The event started off with a medley dedicated to the late Charlie Daniels of The Charlie Daniels Band, who passed away last summer. The performance included stars Dierks Bentley, the Brothers Osborne, Ashley McBryde, and Jason Aldean, who closed off with Daniels’ number-one hit, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” McIntire and Rucker also honored Mac Davis, famed country singer-songwriter who died earlier this year, with his ballad “In the Ghetto.”
Country Music Hall of Famer Kenny Rogers was commemorated with a moving tribute from Little Big Town, who performed his song “Sweet Music Man.” The touching way these stars were honored shows the strength of the country music community and its appreciation for tradition. In the same way that the songs touch on themes of family, religion, small town life, and loss, the CMAs gave tribute to those who have impacted country music. We could all use a greater appreciation of where we came from and a stronger sense of community, especially in today’s world.
This year’s awards were largely taken home by younger members of the industry. The awards are peer-nominated, and 7,000 industry professionals from the Country Music Association vote on who wins each category. One of the best parts of the event was the excitement of fellow musicians when their friends accepted their awards, as seen with Jon Pardi and Luke Combs. The mutual support was palpable even from home, and it couldn’t help but bring a smile to my face.
Despite being stereotyped as old-fashioned, country music is an ever-evolving genre that changes with the times, as shown by the number of newcomers who were awarded at the CMAs. Known as a categorically white male industry, country music actually shows increasing female and minority representation every year.
Maren Morris was the night’s biggest winner, taking home Female Artist of the Year while her song, “The Bones,” won both Single and Song of the Year. Her win was much deserved – I had her latest album, “GIRL,” on repeat as soon as it was out. Morris also used her acceptance speech to honor the black women who pioneered country music and helped make the genre more accessible and beautiful. Notably, she mentioned Mickey Guyton, who independently released her song “Black Like Me” this past June amidst the tragic losses of black community members to police brutality; the song made waves through country music. Artists like Guyton are reshaping the rhetoric around an inappropriately labeled “white genre.”
Luke Combs won Male Artist of the Year and Album of the Year for “What You See Is What You Get.” My favorite songs from the album are the endearing “Forever After All” and the very relatable “Six Feet Apart” – go listen to them! Combs has quickly risen to fame within the industry: in 2018, he won New Artist of the Year at the CMAs, and he won Male Vocalist of the Year last year.
Morgan Wallen, another industry newcomer, took home the coveted New Artist of the Year Award. He performed an acoustic version of his US Billboard Hot 100 song, “More than My Hometown,” another song that has been on my Spotify “On Repeat” playlist since its May release.
Artists Carly Pearce and Lee Brice also won Musical Event of the Year for their duet “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” making this Pearce’s first CMA award, though she was also nominated for New Artist of the Year. “I Hope You’re Happy Now” is a heartbreaking song sung by two powerful voices, and it’s a composition that anyone who has experienced the loss of a relationship can relate to – I can proudly say I will belt it anywhere and everywhere. Pearce and Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum performed the song onstage, as Brice was quarantining.
Legendary country star Charley Pride was also honored with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award for his enormous impact on the industry. Pride is a Country Music Hall of Famer and one of only three African-Americans ever inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. He performed his song “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” with up and coming country singer Jimmie Allen. Pride’s touching speech honored everyone who had helped him make so many forward strides during his career, while also sharing how nervous he was even after all these years.
The night ended by awarding Eric Church with Entertainer of the Year; Church, despite being involved with country music for more than a decade, continues to remain at the top of the charts. The final words of his acceptance speech commemorated the difficult year we’ve all endured in light of the election and pandemic – “Politicians are about division. Music is about unity.” It’s a message we all need to remember.
This year’s CMAs reflected everything I adore about country music. So, to all my fellow country fans – you already know why the relatability, storytelling, and heart of country music makes it the best genre. For all the country nay-sayers, I say give it a try — maybe you’ll fall in love with country music for the same reasons I have.