The Country Music Assn. shouldn’t have worried about what the press might ask artists backstage at the 51st CMA Awards Wednesday night at the Bridgestone Arena. In the end, it was the show and the artists themselves who broached, albeit obliquely, the turmoil of the last few months.
The organization got into hot water last week when it sent guidelines to the media warning them off asking questions about gun control, politics or the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, under threat of credentials being revoked via security escort. After chiding from several artists, including veteran co-host Brad Paisley, the CMA rescinded the directive.
Given that it was always clear that there would be some form of tribute to the victims of Route 91 — which came at the close of co-host Carrie Underwood’s stunning performance of “Softly and Tenderly” during the In Memoriam sequence — it seemed extra absurd to effectively ban questions about what just happened on the telecast.
Here are a few nuggets from those who did meet the press:
Garth Brooks admits to lip-syncing and applauds Miranda Lambert
Winning his sixth overall entertainer of the year prize and second in a row, Brooks told reporters backstage that he was in the middle of 12 shows in 10 days — “not 10 shows in 12 days” — and that his voice was gone. In an attempt to save it for the next show, he made a “game-time call” to lip-sync his performance of “Ask Me How I Know” “because the voice was just not there and you want to represent country music the best that you can.”
He also championed Lambert’s performance. “She is one of the few females that we play,” said Brooks, referring to country radio’s hostility toward female artists. “So you’d think she’d want to play it safe; she came out and she stuck country music in all of our faces tonight, traditional country music.”
Chris Stapleton on a tragic year and living the dream
Winner of two awards, male vocalist and album of the year for “From a Room: Volume 1,” Stapleton said performing his hymn-like song “Broken Halos” was the clear choice for this night — obliquely referencing both the natural and man-made disasters of 2017.
“When some of the events happened this year, [the CMA awards’ producer] Robert [Deaton] called us ... and we collectively talked about it and, in light of the tragic year that we’ve had, that felt like the only thing we could play.”
Since his breakthrough performance on the 2015 CMA Awards with Justin Timberlake, Stapleton — a musician’s musician beloved by Nashville — has been selling records and winning awards at a brisk clip.
With his wife and band mate Morgane by his side as he clutched his trophies — keeping the pointy ends away from her pregnant belly — Stapleton said the rocket ride has been “an unimaginable fairy tale of a thing.”
Little Big Town preaches harmony and happily accepts Taylor Swift’s award on her behalf
“I think we all need to focus on what’s important,” said Karen Fairchild of the vocal quartet, which paid tribute to the late Glen Campbell alongside legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb with a shiver-inducing rendition of “Wichita Lineman” and scored the vocal group of the year award. She amplified her acceptance speech remarks about the world needing to have more harmony. “It’s the ability to have a conversation without anger, it’s OK to love people that you disagree with.”
The group also quipped that they would keep Swift’s trophy for song of the year for their single “Better Man” safe. “We’ll take her award and put it on our shelves,” said Kimberly Schlapman. “She’s got plenty!” (The former country star was prepping for her appearance on “Saturday Night Live” when she got the news of her win.)
Brothers Osborne shout out “badass” country songwriters unafraid to speak the truth
For the second straight year, the voluble Maryland siblings copped the vocal duo award; they also nabbed the music video prize for “It Ain’t My Fault.”
When asked about country music being a venue for artists speaking their minds on current events, frontman-guitarist T.J. Osborne responded with an “Oh, hell yeah,” citing “badass” outspoken country pioneers like Merle Haggard.
“They said things that mattered to people and I think absolutely that’s the coolest thing about country music. It’s been a little lost lately, we hope we can bring it back,” he said of the sense of tentativeness among much of the artist community.
“Honestly, walking the [red] carpet that was coming to the forefront of both of our minds tonight, especially with the political climate coming out of a lot of controversy around gun control and Route 91 and all the high feelings that surround all of that, we are obviously all very sensitive for very rightful reasons,” he said.
The duo performed at the first night of the Las Vegas festival, the evening before the tragic shooting. “Me and my brother, have been on an emotional roller coaster since that event, even still I almost broke out in tears on the carpet, even right now just thinking about how crazy that is,” T.J. said.
“In country music, or really any genre, artists are supposed to speak for people, they’re supposed to be a release for people,” he continued.
Meanwhile, outside the arena…
One person unafraid to get overtly political was Americana artist Sturgill Simpson, who set up shop outside the show.
The winner of this year’s Grammy for country album for his acclaimed “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” live-streamed himself busking and taking questions with his Grammy tucked into his open guitar case.
With a sign that read, “I don’t take requests but I take questions about anything you want to talk about… because fascism sucks” — taking a jab at the CMA’s rescinded guidelines— Simpson played a few songs and proved an excellent prediction maker. Among the artists for which he was rooting were Lambert, Urban and Stapleton, all of whom walked away with trophies.