A steady flow of winners and a few unexpected guests (Miranda Lambert, who presented a media award to reporter Holly Gleason, Jessie Ryan, wife of renowned producer Busbee who died of brain cancer in September) visited the press room at the 53rd annual Country Music Awards on Wednesday night.
As the show rolled on monitors, a lineup of some of country’s biggest names – and a couple of Atlanta natives – chatted backstage. Here are some highlights.
Jennifer Nettles made a bold statement with her outfit (more on that here), but also talked about her ascending acting career.
She currently has a role in the Harriett Tubman biopic (“Harriett”) as the mother of a slave owner and can be seen in HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones. Nettles also previously starred in Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” TV movies.
“I grew up doing theater. I always loved acting on the stage and now with the success I’ve had in music, to be able to enter the TV and film world is such a gift,” she said. “I love storytelling throughout the performing arts and now more than ever we need the arts to help us sort out what’s going on in the world. It wasn’t a bug jump for me, but I’ve worked a lot on my craft over the past few years in terms of coaching and auditioning for the roles I thought were important.”
Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus shared the award for musical event of the year for their remix of the record-shattering “Old Town Road.” The Atlanta rapper talked about his happiness at the song being accepted by the country community, while Cyrus, who enjoyed an introduction to a demographic that wasn’t alive during his “Achy Breaky Heart” mullet-sporting heyday, said that teaming with a rapper fits with his renegade style.
“It’s perfect for my career that the award I win, the musical event of country music, is for a song that was banned (from the country charts),” Cyrus said. “I was never one to fit it or do one music style. Johnny Cash once told me, ‘Live like there is no box.’ That’s what Lil Nas brought to the table. There are no rules. No limits. Music is music. It’s all about the fans. It was the people’s song.”
Lil Nas X, meanwhile, downplayed his Atlanta roots as much of an influence on “Old Town Road.
“There’s so many different things going on in Atlanta all the time. Hip-hop is dominant, but through the use of the Internet, I found so many amazing things and so many different styles, so that was a big influence.”
Blake Shelton, who will perform Friday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the first night of the ATLive concert series, shared his thoughts on why he thinks his CMA single of the year winner, “God’s Country,” became a success.
“I think it’s a combination of the message of the song and simply the title of the song. It’s kinda where we are right now in this country, and the song – you don’t hear songs that sound like that anymore,” Shelton said. “It’s just one of those things that has the country-boy-can-survive element to it, that ‘Ol’ Red’ feel. For me I felt it was a little more of a throwback with a rock edge to it. It shows me there’s still an audience out there starving for music like that…Every time I perform that song it has me literally by the throat and pushed up against the wall and it kicks my ass and I love that about that song.”
Double winner Kacey Musgraves (female singer of the year and music video of the year (“Rainbow”) said that as much as she appreciated the CMA Awards’ effort to showcase women, “every year in country music, women should be celebrated.”
Her choice of performance song with Willie Nelson – “Rainbow Connection” – also had a personal backstory.
“It’s a very special song to me. It’s one of the first songs I ever learned to sing. It was on my first (demo) tape. It was really meaningful for me (to sing it on the show) for a lot of reasons,” she said. “I love Willie so much and respect him as a songwriter and an artist and as a Texan. But also to have (the video) for ‘Rainbow’ nominated and to bridge that with such an icon like Willie…it was really special.”
Breakout star Luke Combs nabbed awards for male vocalist of the year and song of the year for “Beautiful Crazy” and said the latter was the one he really wanted so he could celebrate with co-writers Robert Williford and Atlanta’s Wyatt Durrette.
“ I get to be on stage and talk and be heard all the time, but the people who help me do that don’t always get the credit I feel they deserve. And tonight two great people have gotten exactly what they deserve,” the humble Combs said.
Pregnant Maren Morris disclosed that seconds before she took the stage for her performance of “Girl,” the baby started kicking.
“I got my ultrasound this week and he waved at me, and I sorta felt he was wishing me good luck,” she said with a laugh.
Morris also talked about the night’s theme of female empowerment and said she’s doing what she can to elevate the profiles of some of her peers.
“Paying women is a good start. I brought out female openers on my tour – so have Miranda (Lambert) and Carrie (Underwood) – because putting them on stage is the most progressive way to get eyes on new artists.”
Garth Brooks and the entertainer of the year trophy are quite familiar with each other – this marked the seventh time he’s won the biggest award of the night – and backstage, he reiterated some of his onstage comments about some of the night’s performers.
“What Reba did tonight…that’s an entertainer. We all felt it. We all saw it. What Kelsea Ballerini did with just a guitar in a freaking arena? That’s an entertainer. And Luke (Combs), he’s a natural. He’s gonna have eight of these (entertainer of the year awards).”
Brooks also talked about his current tour of dive bars and how things are a bit different for him now than they were 30 years ago.
“When you played those dive bars in ‘89s, there were 12 people there and you played your one single five times in a night. Now you get to go into these packed little dive bars and they know the words to every song, not even just yours,” Brooks said.
He added that while playing to fans is his real reward, his seventh entertainer of the year win is still special.
“If this ride ever does have to end,” Brooks said, “this is a good one to end it on.”
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