This had always been the plan: Last month, producers announced the CMAs would “mark the first time the biggest names in country music will come together — safely, all in one room — this year.” They required everyone to get coronavirus tests beforehand, and small tables for each singer were spaced eight feet apart.
Still, seeing a mostly maskless audience for an indoor concert, during a global pandemic in which a single-day record of 145,000 coronavirus cases was reported on Wednesday, was unsettling for many viewers. Especially given that three country artists (Lee Brice, Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line and Jenee Fleenor) had to drop out of the show because they tested positive, and two groups (Lady A and Rascal Flatts) canceled because of a positive test within their immediate family and band, respectively. A sampling of the reaction:
In response, the CMAs released a statement during the show: “We are following all protocols that have been put in place by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] as well as the creative unions to ensure we provide the safest environment possible. Before even stepping onto our footprint at [Music City Center in Nashville], every single person (including artists and their reps) was required to be tested. Just as with covid regulations at restaurants, all in attendance are required to wear a mask any time they leave their assigned seat. Staff and crew are also required to wear [personal protective equipment] at all times and, of course, practice social and physical distancing.”
The country stars, on the other hand, were thrilled to be there and gushed about how wonderful it was to see one another in person, many for the first time since the pandemic started.
Here are some of the best and worst moments from the three-hour telecast, in which Maren Morris won three awards, the most of anyone, followed by Luke Combs with two. (A complete list of winners is below.)
The Charley Pride moment
Jimmie Allen performed his first No. 1 song, “Best Shot,” before he presented the show’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, given every few years to a legendary artist. “I might never had a career in country music if it wasn’t for a groundbreaking artist who took his best shot and made the best kind of history in our genre,” Allen, one of the few Black singers currently played on country radio, said of Pride, a groundbreaking Black country artist who became a star in the 1960s.
The two collaborated for “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin',” which delighted country singers such as Ashley McBryde, who swayed and sang along. Pride also took the stage for an acceptance speech, his hands visibly shaking: “You might not believe it, but I’m as nervous as I can be,” he said, before thanking his fans and people who influenced his life in the music business.
Eric Church’s win
Church always plays it so cool under those sunglasses, but it’s a pretty big deal to any artist to win entertainer of the year, the most prestigious prize during country music’s biggest moment in the national spotlight. The singer appeared a little overwhelmed when he took the stage; it’s his fourth nomination and first win in the category, triumphing over Combs, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood.
“If there was ever a year not to win this award,” Church said dryly; this prize is generally considered an award for touring, which clearly did not happen this year. “This award this year, at least for me, has been about the loss of this year: loss of life, loss of playing shows, loss of freedom, loss of kids being in school. And you know what the win is? The win is, we all were here tonight together, as country music in person, live, not on Zoom.”
The other stars cheered at this sentiment. Church made the show’s first allusion to politics: “It’s going to be music that brings us out of this,” he said. “That is the one thing that is going to save the entire world. Politicians are about division. Music is about unity. And I promise you, it’s going to take everybody in this room to unite.”
Maren Morris’s speech
Morris had a big night, winning three awards, including song and single of the year for her smash “The Bones.” And in her third trip to the stage, when she won female vocalist, she gave a shout-out to several Black female country singers, who often aren’t recognized for their contributions in the overwhelmingly White genre. Morris has been one of the most outspoken country stars in her support for the Black Lives Matter movement and recently recorded a protest song called “Better Than We Found It."
“There are some names in my mind that I want to give recognition to because I’m just a fan of their music, and they are country as it gets. And I just want them all to know how much we love them back,” Morris said, encouraging everyone to check out their music. “Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer, Rhiannon Giddens: There are so many amazing Black women that pioneered and continue to pioneer this genre. … You’ve made this genre so beautiful, and I want you to know that we see you. Thank you for making me so inspired as a singer.”
Luke Combs’s performance
While most singers went with their current single or biggest hit of 2020, Combs threw a curveball with a new (extremely catchy) album cut that will inevitably go No. 1 as soon as it’s released to country radio. Combs is probably the most successful superstar in the genre at the moment, so much that we were pretty sure he would pick up a surprise entertainer of the year win. Alas, while he lost to the much more established Church, he did earn two wins for male vocalist and album of the year. As usual, he made sure to remind everyone that he’s only one part of his success story.
“My team, my wife, my family, my parents, the fans, country radio, everybody watching this tonight is just as important as I am in this,” he said. “And I’m just happy to be the guy standing up here holding this trophy for all of us.”
Carly Pearce’s performance
Carly Pearce has had a rough year, as she filed for divorce from fellow country star Michael Ray after eight months. But she delivered her best award show performance ever Wednesday with the breakup anthem “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” with Lady A’s Charles Kelley filling in for Lee Brice, who had to drop out after he tested positive for the coronavirus. It took Pearce years to break through in Nashville, but she’s finally getting accolades, as she had four nominations this year and won musical event for her song with Brice.
Country music lost several icons this year: Little Big Town’s lent their pitch-perfect harmonies to a genuinely moving cover of Kenny Rogers’s “Sweet Music Man,” while Jon Pardi honored Joe Diffie with a twangy rendition of “Pickup Man.” (There was no mention that Diffie died after complications of covid-19.)
And someone on the CMAs staff must be a big “Urban Cowboy” fan, because Old Dominion was tapped to sing the hit “Lookin’ For Love” from the film’s soundtrack.
The instinct to ignore the outside world
We get it: Award shows are an escape, which is valuable right now. But there’s a reason the CMA Awards got backlash last week when they cheerfully promised the show would be a drama-free zone. Even if you want to categorize this year’s events as “drama” (a global pandemic, a racial reckoning, a contentious election) most people don’t have the luxury of shutting those things out.
So while everyone obviously understands the show’s desire to focus on the music, it was still jarring to see the mostly maskless indoor ceremony, with only a few references to the pandemic that has upended everyone’s lives. Quite a few country singers seemed especially eager to discuss the topic this week, posting Instagram stories of celebrations outside the White House and saying that means country shows should resume.
McEntire and Rucker briefly alluded to it in their monologue; Church talked about people’s losses; and Keith Urban dedicated his performance of “God Whispered Your Name” to front-line workers. That was mostly it. Not even the recognition that five of the genre’s acts had to drop out of the ceremony because they (or someone close to them) tested positive for the virus.
The Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker monologue
The duo, hosting for the first time together, did a perfectly fine job because they are both very charming. But a decade of over-the-top Brad Paisley-Carrie Underwood CMA monologues set a high bar, and it’s always awkward to start a show when the opening falls flat — with jokes about how McEntire is instructing her boyfriend to stay six feet apart from Underwood at all times, or how Dolly Parton has “two big reasons to socially distance.”
Carrie Underwood’s mysterious lack of participation — or awards
Speaking of Underwood … she was in attendance but didn’t present, perform or, unfortunately, win anything. Underwood’s lack of wins for entertainer of the year is a sore spot among her fans (and will no doubt continue), but it was odd to have one of the format’s most talented stars show up and not participate at all.
Complete list of winners
Entertainer of the Year
Eric Church — winner
Male Vocalist of the Year
Luke Combs — winner
Female Vocalist of the Year
Maren Morris — winner
Album of the Year
“Heartache Medication,” Jon Pardi
“Never Will,” Ashley McBryde
“Old Dominion,” Old Dominion
“What You See Is What You Get,” Luke Combs — winner
“Wildcard,” Miranda Lambert
Single of the Year
“Bluebird,” Miranda Lambert
“The Bones,” Maren Morris — winner
“I Hope,” Gabby Barrett
“10,000 Hours,” Dan + Shay with Justin Bieber
“Beer Never Broke My Heart,” Luke Combs
Song of the Year
“Bluebird,” Miranda Lambert (written by Lambert, Luke Dick and Natalie Hemby)
“The Bones,” Maren Morris (written by Morris, Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz) — winner
“More Hearts Than Mine,” Ingrid Andress (written by Andress, Sam Ellis and Derrick Southerland)
“I Hope You’re Happy Now,” Carly Pearce and Lee Brice (written by Pearce, Luke Combs, Randy Montana and Jonathan Singleton)
“Even Though I’m Leaving,” Luke Combs (written by Combs, Wyatt Durrette and Ray Fulcher)
Vocal Group of the Year
Little Big Town
Old Dominion — winner
Vocal Duo of the Year
Brooks & Dunn
Dan + Shay — winner
Florida Georgia Line
Maddie & Tae
New Artist of the Year
Morgan Wallen — winner
Musical Event of the Year
“10,000 Hours,” Dan + Shay with Justin Bieber
“Be a Light,” Thomas Rhett featuring Reba McEntire, Hillary Scott, Chris Tomlin and Keith Urban
“The Bones,” Maren Morris with Hozier
“I Hope You’re Happy Now,” Carly Pearce and Lee Brice — winner
“Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” Miranda Lambert featuring Maren Morris, Elle King, Ashley McBryde, Tenille Townes and Caylee Hammack
Music Video of the Year
“10,000 Hours,” Dan + Shay with Justin Bieber
“Bluebird,” Miranda Lambert — winner
“Homemade,” Jake Owen
“I Hope You’re Happy Now,” Carly Pearce and Lee Brice
“Second One to Know,” Chris Stapleton