The 53rd Annual Country Music Association Awards were held at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee on November 13, 2019.
The CMA dedicated a sizable chunk of the telecast to showcasing women, and even trumpeted the evening as one “celebrating legendary women in country music.”
Producers recruited a truly impressive lineup to open the show with a blockbuster medley.
Hosts Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton, and Reba McEntire sang “Those Memories of You,” a song that Parton recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris for their 1987 Trio album, while the Highwomen, Tanya Tucker, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Gretchen Wilson, Crystal Gayle, Terri Clark, and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman offered a mix of signature hits (Evans’ “Born to Fly,” McBride’s “Independence Day”) and influential anthems (Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country”).
Maren Morris, who performed both solo and with the Highwomen, had the most nominations of any artist this year with six. She won Album of the Year for Girl and used her speech to pay tribute to her producer/songwriter collaborator Busbee, who died in September. “I would be really remiss if I didn’t mention a huge facet of why this album sounds the way it does,” she said. “We miss him so dearly.”
After her win for New Artist of the Year, Ashley McBryde delivered a heartfelt, concise speech, seemingly nodding to former Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow’s assertion that women artists need to “step up” if they hope to win awards at the rate of their male counterparts. “I once had the pleasure of playing a tribute show for Mr. John Prine,” McBryde said. “He shook my hand and said, ‘You’re real good. You’re no Reba. But you’re real good.’ I cherish those little moments that are like that, that are truth and guidance from voices that we respect and admire. I’m thankful for that and for this and the opportunity to step up.”
After an emotional acoustic performance of her song “Homecoming Queen,” Kelsea Ballerini was joined by Lindsay Ell, Runaway June, Maddie & Tae, McBryde, Carly Pearce and, finally, Little Big Town for a collaborative cover of “Girl Crush.” After the performance, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild said of the assembled women, “You’re looking at the future of country music right here.”
Kacey Musgraves’ and Willie Nelson’s performance of “Rainbow Connection” was another bright spot. It also felt like a victory lap for Musgraves, the reigning Album of the Year winner and this year’s Female Vocalist of the Year. Since last year’s CMAs, Musgraves notched an AOTY hat trick with Golden Hour, rounding out the trio with an ACM Award and the Grammy for Album of the Year — all of it done with minimal country radio airplay.
Kacey Musgraves took home the Female Vocalist of the Year award.
Four iconic women in country music presented the "Rainbow" singer with her award: Janie Fricke, who won the award in both 1982 and 1983, Pam Tillis, who won in 1994, Kathy Mattea, who took home the award in 1989 and 1990 and Martina McBride who won the honor in 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2004.
"Words can't express just how meaningful and truly unbelievable this past couple of years have been," Musgraves told the audience. "But ultimately I just want to say that I feel that the female creative spirit and female energy is really needed right now, it's really important, I feel like it's something that Earth needs."
“And so whether it’s me that’s up here or any of the other women in this category, I just think it’s a beautiful thing.”
The CMAs featured a number of unexpected collaborations. The good included Pink and Chris Stapleton, who joined forces on Pink’s “Love Me Anyway.” Dierks Bentley, Sheryl Crow, Chris Janson, Joe Walsh, and John Osborne paid spirited tribute to Kris Kristofferson, who (though not in attendance) won the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, with “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Reba McEntire’s cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” has been a staple in her shows for decades now — but the redhead made the routine a little more involved last night, featuring not one, but two onstage wardrobe changes. In the past, she sang most of the song in a fur coat and then ripped it open to reveal a sparkly red dress. This time, McEntire started off wearing a light purple satin robe with white feather-boa cuffs before opening it to reveal the red dress for the first chorus. For the final chorus, she ripped open the dress to display a sparkly red pantsuit that could have been lifted from the dressing room of Bobbie Gentry’s late-Seventies Las Vegas revues. McEntire’s “Fancy” is an ageless, camp classic that had everyone in the audience from Eric Church to Reese Witherspoon singing along and wearing a big smile on their faces.
The night’s most historic win wasn’t televised. In a ceremony held earlier in the day, fiddle player Jenee Fleenor became the first woman to win Musician of the Year, a category that was created in 1988. (Fleenor was also the first woman to be nominated for the award.) In her acceptance speech, she thanked the other nominees — Mac McAnally, Paul Franklin, Ilya Toshinsky, and Derek Wells — as well as Jon Pardi and Blake Shelton, the latter of whom she has played with for much of her career in Nashville. Fleenor did get to take a victory lap during the broadcast, though, joining Shelton for a fiery performance of “God’s Country,” during which she was all smiles as the singer beckoned her to the front of the stage for a rousing solo.
Carrie Underwood brought her sultry performance of “Drinking Alone” from her just-wrapped Cry Pretty 360 World Tour to the CMA Awards stage for one of the night’s standout moments. From the smooth jazz arrangement to her Michael Jackson “Smooth Criminal”-inspired wardrobe and set, everything about this performance illustrates Underwood’s refusal to simply rest on her past success. Well into the second decade of her career, she continues to explore new sounds and dream up creative stage presentations to create distinct eras in her career à la Janet Jackson, Lady Gaga, and Madonna in the pop world.
Last year, both Keith Urban and Kelsea Ballerini delivered big performances at the CMA Awards with tons of production, and in Ballerini’s case, a full dance troupe. This time, both decided to scale it back to solo, acoustic performances reminiscent of Nashville’s famed songwriter rounds. That’s no easy task on such a big show. Urban delivered his nostalgic current hit “We Were” standing up at a microphone on the sparse main stage, while Ballerini sat alone on a small b-stage to sing “Homecoming Queen.” Both performances cut through all the noise and served as reminders of how vital the human connection remains to country music.
Country music superstar Garth Brooks had a major reason to be proud. He was named "Entertainer of the Year" at the 2019 Country Music Association Awards.
Brooks triumphed over fellow nominees Eric Church, Chris Stapleton, Carrie Underwood, and Keith Urban, and he was presented the coveted award by Academy Award-winning actress Reese Witherspoon (June Carter Cash in Walk the Line).
This marked Brooks' seventh career win in the prestigious "Entertainer of the Year" category. He was also nominated for "Musical Event of the Year" for "Dive Bar," his collaboration with Blake Shelton, but they lost to Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus' "Old Town Road" remix.
At this year's CMA ceremony, Brooks performed "Dive Bar" with Blake Shelton.
Complete list of winners from the 2019 Country Music Association Awards
— Entertainer of the year: Garth Brooks
— Female vocalist of the year: Kacey Musgraves
— Male vocalist of the year: Luke Combs
— New artist of the year: Ashley McBryde
— Album of the year: "GIRL," Maren Morris×
— Song of the year: "Beautiful Crazy," Luke Combs
— Single of the year: "God’s Country," Blake Shelton
— Vocal duo of the year: Dan + Shay
— Vocal group of the year: Old Dominion
— Musical event of the year: "Old Town Road (Remix),” Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus
— Music video of the year: "Rainbow,” Kacey Musgraves
— Musician of the year: Jenee Fleenor (fiddle)
Thanks For The Music!
The 53rd Annual CMA Awards
Photos by Glen R. Forrester
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