Yet, the reaction from many country music fans at Brooks being named the winner? Absolute fury.
The vitriol was pouring out on Twitter after the show; the awards show’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were inundated with enraged comments. In many instances, however, the backlash wasn’t even necessarily about Brooks. His legacy is undeniable. The anger was about who didn’t get the prize. Brooks won out over Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban, who was last year’s winner.
The first enraged fandom? Underwood’s. The “American Idol” winner turned country music superstar has steadily built a phenomenal career over the past 15 years, with tons of smash songs and millions of albums sold. Not only has she co-hosted the CMAs every year since 2007 (formerly with Brad Paisley, this time with Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire), but she has also been nominated for entertainer of the year a mere two times despite her wildly successful résumé. This year, during the awards’ eligibility period of July 2018 through June 2019, she released her sixth album, “Cry Pretty,” which had three hit singles. (She also co-produced it.) The entertainer prize is often informally considered an award that favors touring, and for the past year, Underwood headlined a giant arena tour to support the record.
While fans often lobby for their favorites, plenty of people in the industry seemed to be pulling for Underwood as well. Miranda Lambert, one of the most influential voices in the genre, took the unusual step of posting a long Instagram caption last month in which she pushed for Underwood to win. “That iconic voice has been classin’ up our stages, charts and televisions for a decade and a half,” Lambert wrote to her 3.8 million followers. “The blonde bombshell that is Carrie. She blows me away every time I hear her sing. She never wavers in who she is or what she stands for.”
The steady drumbeat toward Underwood’s possible win seemed almost inevitable during Wednesday’s show, which the CMAs had declared a night of “celebrating legendary women in country music,” perhaps as a nod to the genre’s well-documented gender inequality. The theme was on display from the performances (two all-female-artists medleys) to the hosts (Paisley “stepped down” this year), and it would have been the picture-perfect ending if Underwood capped off the night with a victory speech. After all, only seven female acts have won entertainer of the year in the show’s 53-year history, with nine wins overall because Taylor Swift and Barbara Mandrell won twice. (The last woman to win was Swift in 2011.)
Alas, Brooks accepted his prize, giving shout-outs to Luke Combs, Kelsea Ballerini and McEntire for their performances. To really twist the knife, Underwood had to come back onstage with her co-hosts and give him a hug. “Congratulations to Garth Brooks and to all of tonight’s winners!” she said, as she, Parton and McEntire signed off.
The other fandom that was extremely upset about Brooks’s win? The one belonging to Church, known as “the chief.” Don’t even get Church’s fans started about the lack of respect they feel he gets at country music award shows. Although he has had dozens of CMA nominations over the years, he has only won three times: twice for album of the year and once for musical event with Keith Urban. This is his third nomination for entertainer of the year.
If the entertainer prize is about touring, the perpetually sunglasses-clad Church should have that one locked up: In addition to five platinum albums and a long list of hit singles, Church earned his die-hard fan base by years of playing bars and clubs and being rebellious in a genre that (these days, anyway) has little patience for rule-breakers. When he was fired from the Rascal Flatts tour in 2006 for playing longer than his scheduled opening set time, he traveled to the same cities as the tour and played in smaller competing venues. He embraced a rock-fueled country sound and didn’t care if mainstream Nashville didn’t like it. Eventually, he sold so much music and so many tickets, the industry had no choice but to accept his “outsider” ways.
In any case, Church for entertainer of the year seems like a long shot; the award is based on “recorded performance, in-person performance, staging, public acceptance, attitude, leadership, and overall contribution to the country music image,” and he might be too outspoken for some industry voters. But he also had a huge-selling concert tour this year, playing in most cities two nights back-to-back, with three-hour shows, and the “Church Choir” has decided his award is long overdue.
Either way, a few Brooks defenders jumped in on social media, and Brooks said he was honored by the award. He told “Entertainment Tonight”: “The fact that it’s number seven and the fact that it came on the tribute to women’s night, being married to one of the greatest female singers ever, being the father of three daughters … this is very special."