A century after the country gave women the right to vote, ABC and the Country Music Association gave women a vote of confidence.
The CMA’s 53rd annual telecast turned into a veritable girls night out, with females beating the guys in several mixed-gender categories and ladies’ voices strung across the three-hour broadcast, starting with a medley that climaxed in 14 voices proclaiming their own “Independence Day.”
Kacey Musgraves took home two trophies, Maren Morris’ aptly titled Girl won album of the year, fiddler Jenee Fleenor became the first woman to named musician of the year, and Ashley McBryde swiped new artist of the year. The only victory that busted the female theme was Garth Brooks’ show-closing entertainer of the year win, the seventh time he’s taken that award. Even then, Brooks cited two women in his acceptance speech:
Reba McEntire, whose rendition of “Fancy” he considered the top performance of the night; and Kelsea Ballerini, whose acoustic take on current single “homecoming queen?” was a study in intimacy.
“Luke Combs,” he added, “wherever you’re at, this [trophy] has got your name on it in the future.” Combs, like Musgraves, was a double-winner, snagging male vocalist and song of the year for “Beautiful Crazy.” The male victory broke Chris Stapleton’s four-year lock on that award, while “Beautiful Crazy” – with its celebration of his fiancee’s idiosyncracies – puts women on an appropriate pedestal.
“This is pretty unbelievable stuff,” Combs said after claiming the male vocalist honor. “I remember sitting on my parents’ porch when I was a little kid and watching Vince Gill come up here and win this same award. I want to thank my team, my fans, and everybody in this room inspires me every day.”
Musgraves’ victories fit the evening’s girl-power theme. She won female vocalist for the first time in her career, and she collected the video of the year award for “Rainbow” before the telecast began. The “Rainbow” clip puts a series of people in difficult positions in a hopeful light, particularly women fighting to accept their self-worth.
“Words can’t express just how meaningful and truly unbelievable this past couple years have been,” Musgraves said in her on-camera acceptance speech. “But ultimately I want to say that the female creative spirit, the female energy, it’s really needed right now.”
Morris walked off with Girl after performing the grungy, burning title track, a confidence-boosting self-talk that applies to women in all sorts of difficult emotional circumstances. The album itself places Morris in a vulnerable position, given that one of her key associates, songwriter/producer busbee, died Sept. 28, a month to the day after the album’s nomination was revealed.
She was strong enough to allow her emotions to show through during her acceptance speech. “I would be really remiss if I didn’t mention a huge facet of why this album sounds the way it does,” Morris said. “[Busbee] texted me the morning we got the nomination for album of the year this year, and we were so excited. His wife, Jess, is here tonight and she looks so beautiful, thank you for sharing your husband with us once a month. My heart just goes out to you and your beautiful daughters. I hope when they listen to this record and any of the songs that he made that made us all better, that they know how amazing their father was.”
McBryde’s new artist win placed her alongside Morris and Ballerini as the category’s solo female victors during the 2010s.
“Girls, this thing’s heavy and you’ll feel really good carrying it around,” McBryde said backstage with words of wisdom for future female CMA winners. “It’s never too early to start doing what you want to do. It’s never too late to start doing what you want to do either. Just don’t forget the only person that can stop you is you. So don’t tell yourself no, because everybody else is going to do that for you.”
Even when the guys took a turn, the CMA award winners’ music was invariably “boyfriend country” – men giving props to the women that they love. Combs’ “Beautiful Crazy” is the prime example, but Dan + Shay’s first vocal duo win – following a performance of wedding song “Speechless” with a classy string section – added to the effect. Old Dominion repeated as vocal group of the year after similarly delivering “One Man Band,” a ballad of commitment to a life-changing woman.
Blake Shelton earned single of the year for “God’s Country,” and employed Fleenor in the backing band as he performed it during the show. Shelton, who first heard “God’s Country” while riding a tractor on his Oklahoma farm, compared the song backstage to Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive,” though songwriter Jordan M. Schmidt thought it had even more unusual tones in its original incarnation.
“I was like, ‘Well, this is weird,’” he said on the red carpet. “The demo of it kind of sounds like Imagine Dragons country. It’s so dark, and you never think dark is gonna work. That just once again, proves that I have no idea what I’m talking about, and there’s beauty and chaos in that.”
Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus similarly found beauty in chaos with “Old Town Road,” a song that defied genres but ultimately claimed musical event of the year. In the press room, Cyrus recalled how Johnny Cash told him to ignore criticisms when he launched his career with “Achy Breaky Heart” in 1992, when he won his only previous CMA award for single of the year.
“Be an original,” Cyrus said, quoting the Man in Black. “Don’t live your life trying to fit in the box. Don’t try fit outside the box. Live like there is no box.”
The CMA’s girl-power theme certainly shook up country’s box. At a time when women are struggling to find acceptance in playlists, the lineup – headed by hosts McEntire, Dolly Parton and Carrie Underwood – provided a reminder of female artists’ power. Martina McBride, Carly Pearce, The Highwomen, Kathy Mattea and Jennifer Nettles were just a few of the female stars who helped shape the evening’s narrative.
Nettles did that pointedly in a white pants suit with a bright pink cape that bore a simple message: “Play our F-in’ records, please and thank you.”
“What more womanly way to make a statement than through fashion,” she said backstage. It accomplished, in a more pointed manner, what the entire CMA show was designed to do: “say something,” Nettles noted, “light and point a subversive finger in a cheeky way that really continues the conversation.”