Nashville’s Country Music Assn. used its 53rd CMA Awards ceremony Wednesday to go all in to support the genre’s female practitioners, who have practically become an endangered species in recent years on male-dominated mainstream country radio.
The three-hour telecast was hosted by a trio of generation-spanning country superstars — Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire — and loaded up on a majority of female performers and award presenters. Top awards also landed in the hands of album-of-the-year winner Maren Morris (for “Girl”), female vocalist Kacey Musgraves and new artist Ashley McBryde, among others.
The CMA’s preeminent entertainer of the year award, however, went for the seventh time to superstar Garth Brooks, an honor that recognizes musicians’ recorded music and live performances.
In collecting her first female vocalist trophy from the CMA, 31-year-old Musgraves said, “I feel that the female energy, the female spirit is really important right now. I think the earth needs it right now.”
Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles, in addition to being one of dozens of women featured in performance segments, further drove the point home on behalf of female artists even before the ceremony began, when she entered the Bridgestone Arena wearing a red cape with the words “Play our F*@!!iN Records … Please & Thank You” handwritten on it, and a female gender symbol on the left leg of her ivory slacks.
Relative newcomer Luke Combs, one of the major success stories in country music this year, was named male vocalist, and Brooks name-checked him when accepting his entertainer trophy, predicting, “Luke Combs, wherever you’re at, this has your name on it in the future, I tell you that.”
It was indeed a big night for Combs, who also shared the songwriting award with two collaborators when his hit single “Beautiful Crazy” was named song of the year, having rapidly become a contemporary country classic.
“People will come up and tell me that they danced to this song at their wedding,” Combs, 29, told The Times in April when he was granted penultimate headliner status at Stagecoach, the world’s largest country music festival. “We’ve had proposals in the crowd during that song. It really struck a chord.”
It also was a good night for the awards telecast itself: The CMA reported the show won its time slot and reached 11.3 million viewers, up 12% over last year’s audience of 10.1 million, which had been a 30% drop from the previous year’s viewership.
Wednesday’s show opened with a nearly nine-minute medley that saluted 87-year-old country queen Loretta Lynn, who looked on from a seat in the audience, as Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman sang Lynn’s hit “You’re Looking at Country” and the Highwomen quartet delivered “Your Good Girl Is Gonna Go Bad.”
Then a series of female artists — Tanya Tucker, Gretchen Wilson, Crystal Gayle (Lynn’s sister), Terri Clark, Sara Evans and Martina McBride — each offered a snippet of one of their hits over nearly 50 years. The segment was a striking reminder of earlier eras when women’s voices were in the mix on country radio far more frequently than they have been lately.
What the show emphasized with the attention to women, it sidestepped in terms of the other big country music story of 2019: rapper Lil Nas X’s cultural flashpoint megahit “Old Town Road,” which earned one of two awards announced ahead of the evening ceremony.
Not surprisingly overlooked in the overall single of the year category, given country radio programmers’ initial reluctance to play it, “Old Town Road” was named musical event of the year for the collaborative remix the rapper made with veteran country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, himself no stranger to debates about authenticity and country music dating back to his own pop-minded breakthrough hit “Achy Breaky Heart” in 1992.
The two musicians looked on to the evening’s featured performances and other award winners from their seats in the arena, without being given the opportunity to speak. Another R&B/hip-hop artist, singer and producer Blanco Brown, was tapped as a co-presenter, but received no nominations for his breakaway country dance hit “The Git Up,” which topped the country singles chart for several weeks this summer.
The other pre-telecast award went to Musgraves for music video for “Rainbow,” her song of support for societal underdogs, which she wrote with frequent collaborators Shane McAnally and Natalie Hemby and included on her sonically and thematically expansive album, “Golden Hour.”
One of the musical highlights of the show was her duet with 86-year-old Willie Nelson on “Rainbow Connection,” a song introduced four decades ago in “The Muppet Movie,” as sung by Kermit the Frog.
The backdrop for the focus on women has been the struggle female musicians have faced getting airplay on mainstream country radio in recent years, which has been overwhelmingly male-centric. When Morris’ single “Girl” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s country airplay chart in July, it was the first time a woman had reached that spot in 17 months, after Kelsea Ballerini made it to the top in February 2018 with “Legends.”
Ballerini presided over a performance segment showcasing several rising female artists, including McBryde, guitarist-singer-songwriter Lindsay Ell, trio Runaway June, duo Maddie and Tae, singer-songwriter Carly Pearce and the long-established quartet Little Big Town, all of whom sang different portions of Little Big Town’s 2014 hit “Girl Crush.”
Fiddler Jenee Fleenor also made CMA history Wednesday, becoming both the first female nominated in the long exclusively male category of instrumentalist or musician of the year, and the first female winner as well.
Still, the CMA’s female-heavy award ceremony couldn’t fully compensate for the fact that male nominees for awards this year outnumbered females by more than 3-to-1. Four of the five entertainer-of-the-year nominees were male — Brooks, Eric Church, Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban — along with Underwood as the only female in the running.
Awards were determined by votes from the more than 7,400 CMA members who work in various facets of the country music business, including artists, managers, talent agents, record company personnel and others. The eligibility period for this year’s awards was July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019.