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CMA Awards Sum Up Country Music’s Upside-Down Year

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Black voices mattered, at least nominally, at the 54th annual Country Music Association Awards, which were broadcast Wednesday from Nashville on ABC — the rare indoor live event featuring an audience during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Darius Rucker, the lead singer of Hootie & the Blowfish who re-emerged over the last decade as a country singer-songwriter, hosted the show alongside Reba McEntire; he was only the show’s second Black co-host, following Charley Pride in 1975. Pride himself was also there, receiving a long overdue lifetime achievement award that was presented to him by a young Black country singer, Jimmie Allen, who performed his own No. 1 country hit (and debut single), “Best Shot.” (Allen was nominated as new artist of the year but lost to Morgan Wallen.)

And when Maren Morris was named female vocalist of the year, her acceptance speech pointedly included a list of Black women making country music: Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer and Rhiannon Giddens.

But the show was determinedly anodyne. Promoting the broadcast in a tweet, the Country Music Association had promised a “no drama zone,” which many took to mean a gag order on politics and the major issues gripping the United States today, though it later stated, “We welcome every artist’s right to express themselves.”

But the Covid-19 pandemic hovered over the show. Unlike the Academy of Country Music Awards, which had its performances in nearly empty rooms and prerecorded many of them — precautions similarly taken by the Billboard Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards and the BET Awards — the three-hour CMA ceremony took place live and indoors, with a small but unmasked in-person audience consisting largely of the show’s performers. Full bands shared the stage, and musicians got to hear some applause, something they have clearly missed. The lineup had last-minute changes after a small roster of artists tested positive for the virus or revealed they had possibly been exposed: George Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line, Lee Brice, Rascal Flatts, Jenee Flower and Lady A. The show took place as the number of new cases in the United States hit record highs.

Eric Church received the final award, entertainer of the year, which usually goes to a top touring attraction — an impossibility during the pandemic. “If there was ever a year not to win this award …” Church said, trailing off to laughter. “This year, at least for me, has been about the loss of this year: loss of life, loss of playing shows, loss of freedom, loss of kids being in school. You know what the win is? The win is we were all here tonight, together, as country music — in person, live, not on Zoom.”

He added, “It’s going to be music that brings us out of this. That is the one thing that’s going to save the entire world. Politicians are about division. Music is about unity.”

The show’s other big winners were Morris (song of the year and single of the year for “The Bones,” female vocalist of the year) and Luke Combs (album of the year and male vocalist of the year).

The program paid tribute to songwriters and singers who died in 2020 — Kenny Rogers, Mac Davis, Charlie Daniels and Joe Diffie — yet it ignored other influential ones: John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker. The Daniels tribute was rootsy and rowdy, and allotted multiple songs enough verses to tell their stories; the Rogers tribute was Little Big Town reverently singing “Sweet Music Man,” a thoroughly ambivalent song about a working musician. And the song chosen to honor Davis — the 1969 Elvis Presley hit “In the Ghetto,” sung by Rucker and McEntire — was no doubt well-intentioned, but its sanctimoniousness hasn’t aged well.

Current country has learned a lot from the arena rock of decades past. When Church, Wallen and Chris Stapleton performed, they sounded like the foundation of country music was the growls and marches of Bruce Springsteen, not, say, the honky-tonk of Hank Williams. Ashley McBride’s “One Night Standards” has the wordplay and specificity of vintage country songwriting, but her performance also used the pealing guitar dynamics of U2. Gabby Barrett’s intricately seething revenge fantasy, “I Hope,” which she performed with Charlie Puth, crested with power chords like a classic-rock ballad.

Country also makes alliances with current pop. “The Bones,” the single that brought Morris her awards, compares a marriage to the stability of a house, in clear country style, but its producer was Greg Kurstin, who has made pop bangers with Adele. The duo Dan + Shay became a three-tenors trio by adding Justin Bieber on “10,000 Hours.” For the awards show, they performed it together at an unattended Hollywood Bowl, and the vastly more popular Bieber made himself a team player as he harmonized with the country duo.

The Country Music Association Awards summed up a complicated year for country music — a year when its white male domination was up for interrogation, a year when its barnstorming tours could not happen, a year of deeply divided politics, a year of health crisis. All an awards show could do was to muddle through, and — given its production choices — hope not to become a superspreader event.

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