“The female creative spirit, female energy, it’s really needed right now. It’s really important. And I feel like it’s something that earth needs,” Musgraves said as she picked up the trophy for female vocalist. Her hit ballad, “Rainbow,” won music video of the year. “So whether it’s me that’s up here or any of the other women in this category, I just think that it’s a beautiful thing and I’m very appreciative.”
It was a fitting speech, given the show’s theme was “celebrating legendary women in country music”; Nashville has made lots of unflattering headlines in recent years about the male-dominated genre’s lack of support for female artists. So the CMAs split up the longtime co-hosting duo of Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, sending Paisley packing (but giving him a prime-time special to air next month) and pairing Underwood with legends Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire.
Male artists still received the majority of the awards, such as Combs, Nashville’s breakout star who won song of the year for his smash hit “Beautiful Crazy” and male vocalist. “This is pretty unbelievable stuff,” he said through tears as he accepted the latter award. “Country music means everything to me.”
Garth Brooks landed the most prestigious prize, entertainer of the year, and name-checked Combs in his speech. “Luke Combs, wherever you’re at, this has got your name on it in the future, I can tell you that right now,” he said, and also gave shout-outs to McEntire and Kelsea Ballerini’s performances.
Here are some of the best and worst moments from the three-hour telecast; a complete list of winners and nominees is below.
The opening medley
The first 10 minutes of the show were a whirlwind, as more than a dozen female artists took the stage for a medley of classics by female country stars. Underwood, Parton and McEntire sang “Those Memories of You,” recorded in 1987 by Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris; Jennifer Nettles, Kimberly Schlapman and Karen Fairchild tackled Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country”; and the Highwomen belted out Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.” Then a few artists sang their own hits: Tanya Tucker (“Delta Dawn”); Gretchen Wilson (“Redneck Woman”); Crystal Gale (“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”); Terri Clark (“Better Things to Do”); Sara Evans (“Born to Fly”); and Martina McBride (“Independence Day.”)
While there were a few noticeable absences — why was Trisha Yearwood only in the audience? — the overall medley was mesmerizing; the camera caught quite a few delighted country singers in the crowd singing and dancing along to easily the most captivating performance of the night.
Brooks and Dunn, and Brothers Osborne
Earlier this year, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn had the ingenious idea to make a “Reboot” album, in which they rerecorded some of their biggest hits with contemporary country artists. One of the catchiest tracks was “Hard Workin’ Man” (a Top 10 in 1993) with Brothers Osborne, and the two duos joined forces to perform the rocker. The four of them blended together effortlessly, with some help from TJ Osborne’s baritone to John Osborne’s famous guitar skills.
Maren Morris’s tribute to Busbee
Earlier this fall, uber-successful producer Busbee, who worked with lots of Nashville’s top stars, died suddenly at age 43. Morris, one of his closest collaborators, cried as she accepted the album of the year trophy for “Girl,” which Busbee co-produced.
“I would be really remiss if I didn’t mention a huge facet of why this album sounds the way it does. And we miss him so dearly. He texted me the morning that we got the nomination for album of the year this year, and we were so excited. And that’s our friend Busbee,” Morris said, noting that his wife was in the audience. “My heart just goes out to you and your beautiful daughters. I hope when they listen to this record or any of the songs that he made that made us all better, they know how amazing their father was.”
Willie Nelson and Kacey Musgraves
Even watching on TV, it seemed like you could hear a pin drop in the Bridgestone Arena while Nelson and Musgraves sang a quiet, lovely version of “The Rainbow Connection”; the duet wrapped up as Musgraves sang a line from her own “Rainbow”: “It’ll all be all right …”
Eric Church’s performance
Every year, Church’s fans are angry that he doesn’t receive more recognition from award shows, and we admit that we’re also a bit surprised he left empty-handed on Wednesday. His rendition of his current single, “Some of It,” was as solid as a televised performance as we have ever seen from him, signature sunglasses and all.
Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton’s individual performances
Is it a coincidence that some of the strongest live songs of the night came from the three hosts? Probably! But still. Underwood went with bombastic and jazzy as she belted out her new single, “Drinking Alone.” McEntire brought down the house with one of her most popular smashes, “Fancy.” And Parton wrapped up a spiritual medley with Zach Williams and For King & Country with the chill-inducing “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
Jenee Fleenor’s (brief) moment with Blake Shelton
After an entertaining performance of “God’s Country,” which won single of the year, Shelton gave a big hug to his fiddle player, Jenee Fleenor. Earlier in the day, it was announced that Fleenor won musician of the year — not only was she the first woman to win, she also was the first woman nominated in the category in the CMAs’ 53-year history. While that category is traditionally presented off-camera, at least she got a brief moment in the televised spotlight.
The monologue jokes
Although it was great that Underwood, McEntire and Parton got to host, there was no mention of the reason the night’s theme was necessary — or that award shows can celebrate as many legendary women as they want, but it won’t affect much unless there are changes at radio (where female artists receive about 11 percent of airplay) or on streaming services or festival lineups. (The closest anyone got was Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, who wore a cape on the red carpet that read, “PLAY OUR F*@#!N RECORDS.”) Instead, the hosts joked about how crowded it is with three women in one dressing room, and that while there were “racks” of clothing everywhere, Parton had “the biggest” — never heard that one before!
The lack of a televised Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus speech
On Wednesday morning, the CMAs announced on “Good Morning America” that Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus won musical event of the year for the “Old Town Road” remix. The two of them also gave a speech before the ceremony. While that prize is also usually presented before the telecast, couldn’t they have made an exception for such a gigantic, history-making song? Granted, the track is a controversial subject in Nashville, but the two of them were just sitting in the audience.
The Kris Kristofferson tribute
It seemed like a great idea on paper: Dierks Bentley, Sheryl Crow, Chris Janson, John Osborne and Joe Walsh performing “Me and Bobby McGee” as a tribute to Kris Kristofferson, this year’s recipient of the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. But the arrangement just seemed off, and Kristofferson wasn’t there to see it — he kept a previously scheduled concert gig in Iowa.
The unnecessary cameos from pop stars
Pink loves performing at the CMAs — this time, it was “Love Me Anyway,” a ballad from her new album that features Chris Stapleton. Halsey also joined Lady Antebellum for a mash-up of the group’s “What If I Never Get Over You” and her own single, “Graveyard.” Sure, they sounded nice … but we can think of so many actual country singers in the audience that would have loved that valuable stage time.
Entertainer of the Year
Garth Brooks — winner
Female Vocalist of the Year
Kacey Musgraves — winner
Male Vocalist of the Year
Luke Combs — winner
Album of the Year
“Center Point Road,” Thomas Rhett
“Cry Pretty,” Carrie Underwood
“Dan + Shay,” Dan + Shay
“Desperate Man,” Eric Church
“Girl,” Maren Morris — winner
Single of the Year
“Burning Man,” Dierks Bentley (feat. Brothers Osborne)
“Girl,” Maren Morris
“God’s Country,” Blake Shelton — winner
“Millionaire,” Chris Stapleton
“Speechless,” Dan + Shay
Song of the Year
“Beautiful Crazy,” Luke Combs (written by Combs, Wyatt B. Durrette III, Robert Williford) — winner
“Girl,” Maren Morris (written by Morris, Sarah Aarons, Greg Kurstin)
“God’s Country,” Blake Shelton (written by Devin Dawson, Jordan Schmidt, Michael Hardy)
“Rainbow,” Kacey Musgraves (written by Musgraves, Natalie Hemby, Shane McAnally)
“Tequila,” Dan + Shay (written by Dan Smyers, Nicolle Galyon, Jordan Reynolds)
New Artist of the Year
Ashley McBryde — winner
Vocal Group of the Year
Little Big Town
Old Dominion — winner
Zac Brown Band
Vocal Duo of the Year
Brooks & Dunn
Dan + Shay — winner
Florida Georgia Line
Maddie & Tae
Musical Event of the Year
“All My Favorite People,” Maren Morris (feat. Brothers Osborne)
“Brand New Man,” Brooks & Dunn (with Luke Combs)
“Dive Bar,” Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton
“Old Town Road (Remix),” Lil Nas X (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus) — winner
“What Happens in a Small Town,” Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell
Music Video of the Year
“Burning Man,” Dierks Bentley (feat. Brothers Osborne)
“Girl,” Maren Morris
“God’s Country,” Blake Shelton
“Rainbow,” Kacey Musgraves — winner
“Some of It,” Eric Church