From Crystal Gayle to Gretchen Wilson, The Highwomen to the hosting trio of the sequined-and-fringed Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton, the 53rd annual CMA Awards established its purpose in the first nine minutes of Wednesday’s show.
This one was for the girls.
The only disappointment was the brevity of the memorable opening performance that included classics “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” “Independence Day” and “You’re Lookin’ at Country” – with cutaways to Loretta Lynn in the audience. But with so many top names to shoehorn in – Jennifer Nettles, Tanya Tucker and Martina McBride among them – there was no other sensible way to showcase this lineup of women who have all worn coats of many colors (and Nettles showcased a talker backstage).
The girl power theme ran throughout the three-hour show, as female vocalist of the year Kacey Musgraves – her first win in that category – celebrated “the female creative spirit, female energy,” in her acceptance speech.
And there would be no fiercer a solo performance than McEntire’s, who slayed “Fancy,” the Bobbie Gentry scorcher she’s made a key part of her legacy. As she stripped off various layers of red clothing, McEntire strutted and sneered, drenching the song in undiminished defiance.
Entertainer of the year winner Garth Brooks - who last earned the title in 2016 and 2017 – noted from the stage, “If they gave this award for this show tonight, I’d have to give it to Reba McEntire’s performance.”
Top nominee Maren Morris – who won the prestigious album of the year for “Girl” and tearfully paid homage to late producer Busbee – also commanded the stage with her sultry read of the title track.
Even though lead host Underwood was flanked by country royalty, she quickly proved that neither the goofy wit of Brad Paisley – given the night off after 11 years of sharing the CMA stage – nor the rim shot jokes about Parton’s “rack” were necessary. Her quick-witted snipe at a malfunctioning TelePrompTer demonstrated that she owns this gig.
In recent years, the CMAs – which aired live from Bridgestone Arena – nicked a page from the Grammys playbook and started enlisting intriguing musical pairings.
Of course some fans tuned in to see Blake Shelton win his first single of the year award (“God’s Country”), Ashley McBryde nab new artist of the year and Luke Combs score song of the year for “Beautiful Crazy” - co-written with Atlanta’s Wyatt Durrette – and male vocalist of the year.
But more were likely enthralled hearing McBryde join with Kelsea Ballerini, Little Big Town, Carly Pearce, Lindsay Ell and others for a richly harmonic performance of LBT’s 2015 CMA single of the year, “Girl Crush.”
Pink and Chris Stapleton teamed for “Love Me Anyway,” a tasteful ballad that soared on the power of their combined soulfulness, while Lady Antebellum and Halsey melded vocals on “What if I Never Get Over You.” Dierks Bentley and Sheryl Crow paid homage to Kris Kristofferson with a rollicking “Me and Bobby McGee,” the classic from Kristofferson penned in the late-‘60s. And Willie Nelson – in his first CMA appearance since 2012 - strummed the chords and speak-sung a somewhat breathless “Rainbow Connection,” joined by an angelic-voiced Musgraves.
Though their category wasn’t televised, the oddest pairing of 2019, Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X and the career-resuscitated Billy Ray Cyrus, won musical event of the year for their record-breaking remix of “Old Town Road.”
Backstage, a soft-spoken Lil Nas said he appreciated the acceptance of his breakthrough hit. “It is the bridge of polar opposite genres and I’m just happy it’s gotten respect from both,” he said.
Also backstage, Douglas native Nettles proudly displayed a hot pink cape behind her white pantsuit with a message to country radio to “Play our (bleepin’) records.”
“When I learned the CMAs would be celebrating women, I thought what a fantastic opportunity to continue the conversation and shed some light,” Nettles said. “For a woman, what more womanly way to make a statement than through fashion and point a subversive finger in a cheeky way?”
This year’s CMA Awards were voted on by more than 7,000 members of the Country Music Association on recordings released between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019.
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