Chris Stapleton probably would’ve cleaned up at Wednesday night’s 55th CMA Awards even if his latest album was called “14 Songs of Music by a Guy.” That it’s actually titled “Starting Over” — well, you can bet the embattled Country Music Assn. felt especially good about rewarding that idea.
Dogged no less than the Recording Academy in recent years by criticism of its attitude toward diversity and inclusion, the Nashville trade group had little chance of evading such scrutiny this year thanks to Morgan Wallen, whose use of the N-word in a video published in February by TMZ sparked widespread conversation about the country industry’s history of racism.
And indeed the CMA seemed to mollify few when it ruled that the young superstar would be forbidden from attending Wednesday but that his blockbuster “Dangerous,” which only grew in popularity after the video came out, would be allowed to compete for album of the year. (Despite a huge cheer from the in-person audience at the mention of Wallen’s name, “Dangerous” lost to “Starting Over,” whose title track was also named song of the year and single of the year — the first time one artist has won all three of those awards in a single night since 2002, when Alan Jackson did it with his album “Drive” and his post-9/11 anthem “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning.”)
Yet if Wallen’s phantom presence hung heavy over the CMAs — “I wake up every morning and thank the Lord for my blessings,” he tweeted minutes after the event, which was broadcast live on ABC from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena — this was a clear attempt by those in control to demonstrate that a once-hidebound genre had evolved.
Jimmie Allen became only the second Black performer to be named new artist of the year, while Brothers Osborne’s TJ Osborne, one of the very few openly gay men in country music, won vocal duo of the year with his brother John.
“It’s been a crazy rollercoaster of a year for us in so many ways, especially for me emotionally, and to have you all support me, it really does feel like love wins tonight,” TJ said in his acceptance speech after kissing his boyfriend in the audience. (Other big winners beyond the universally admired Stapleton, who also took male artist of the year, included Luke Combs, named entertainer of the year, and Carly Pearce, who won female artist of the year.)
More important than the trophies, the show itself — country music’s highest-profile annual presentation — felt designed to emphasize performances by women and people of color, even as they’re outnumbered by white men nearly 3 to 1 on Billboard’s closely watched country airplay chart.
There was Mickey Guyton, the 37-year-old Black singer with a well documented trail of professional frustrations, doing her “Love My Hair” while flanked by up-and-comers Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards, each wearing a natural ’do seldom (if ever) seen at the CMAs. The trio was introduced by Faith Fennidy, a Louisiana girl whose viral account of being asked to leave her middle school because her braids were deemed a distraction inspired Guyton to write “Love My Hair.”
There was Jennifer Hudson, visiting Nashville to pay tribute to Aretha Franklin’s love of country music — and to remind any Oscar voters who’d tuned in of her starring role in this year’s Franklin biopic “Respect” — with a scorching take on Willie Nelson’s “Night Life,” for which she was joined by Stapleton, whose rooting in Black music he’d classily acknowledged earlier in his country-soul “Cold.”
There was Breland, the young, hip-hop-steeped artist who joined Dierks Bentley and Hardy for a spirited “Beers on Me.” And not least there were Allen and Kane Brown with performances of tunes as happily mediocre as those sung routinely for decades by white dudes on this program. Let’s consider it a sign of progress that Black artists — Black male artists, this is — no longer have to be generational talents to score some stage time at the CMA Awards.
Or at least this year they didn’t: It’s hard to know if the newly welcoming mindset advertised Wednesday will endure in Nashville or if it was merely a kind of election-year grandstanding from an industry currently under the microscope.
Certainly, Wednesday’s show featured plenty of status-quo moments from the likes of Blake Shelton — “If my neck don’t come out red, then Lord just keep me dead,” he sang in “Come Back As a Country Boy” — and the duo of Carrie Underwood and Jason Aldean, who delivered their power ballad “If I Didn’t Love You,” the latter resisting any urge to trumpet the conservative talking points he’s known for hammering online. (Underwood made waves on Twitter early in the evening when she appeared to side-eye host Luke Bryan after he made a joke about Aaron Rodgers’ dubious stance on COVID-19 vaccines.)
Still, you couldn’t deny the emotion in Allen’s speech — the sense that finally things were starting to change — as he tearfully accepted his award with a memory of his first trip to the CMAs, when he spent his last $100, he said, to come watch Charley Pride sing.
“And I got to perform with him last year,” he added of the pioneering Black country artist, who enlisted Allen for a rendition of Pride’s classic “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” at the 54th CMA Awards. What Allen left unmentioned — no doubt to the relief of the CMA, which drew broad condemnation for convening a largely unmasked crowd in 2020 at the height of the pandemic — is that Pride died of COVID-19 just a few weeks later.