This year’s CMA Awards ceremony was billed as a night that would focus on the contributions female artists have made—and are making—to the country music genre. After 11 years of co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood leading the show, for the 53rd annual event it was announced that Underwood would serve as host, joined by guest hosts Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton.
From the show’s opening moments on Wednesday, Nov. 13, which featured McEntire, Parton, and Underwood collaborating on “Those Memories of You,” a song made famous by Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on their 1987 album Trio, the evening’s performances showcased the decades of influence of the female voice and perspective on country music.
“We are doing it for all of the little girls watching tonight, dreaming of ruling the world of country music—or maybe just ruling the world,” said Reba.
Parton is the second female artist to have won Entertainer of the Year (in 1978), while McEntire won in 1986. Underwood was nominated this year for the coveted Entertainer trophy (she was previously nominated for the honor in 2016).
Fourteen female country hitmakers shared the stage in the opening number. They paid tribute to the CMA’s very first female Entertainer of the Year winner Loretta Lynn (who won the honor in 1972) with “You’re Looking At Country,” as performed by Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman, along with Jennifer Nettles (who should have won an award for her bold red carpet outfit alone—a suit and cape embroidered with a stark message to country radio—“Play Our F*@#!N Records Please & Thank You”).
The Highwomen (Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby) offered a rendition of Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” while Tanya Tucker performed her own hit “Delta Dawn,” the track that introduced the world to a precocious 13-year-old Tucker in 1972.
Gretchen Wilson offered “Redneck Woman,” while Crystal Gayle performed her signature “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” Terri Clark powered through “Better Things To Do,” while Sara Evans performed her 2000 hit “Born To Fly.” Powerhouse vocalist Martina McBride made a dramatic entrance on “Independence Day.”
Curiously, though hitmaker and Grammy winner Trisha Yearwood was in the audience—and has released two albums in the past year—somehow she was not among the talented female performers featured throughout the evening.
Awards day started off with promising female wins, as Jenee Fleenor was named Musician of the Year prior to the telecast. Fleenor is both the first female to be nominated—and to win—the honor in CMA history.
Warner Music Nashville artist Ashley McBryde, known for her breakthrough songs including “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” and “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” was named New Artist of the Year. The crowd roared a hearty applause as she took the stage.
“I once had the pleasure of playing a tribute show for Mr. John Prine and the next day he shook my hand and he 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. And I’m thankful for that and for this and for the opportunity to step up.”
The evening also offered first-time winners in several categories.
Janie Fricke, Pam Tillis, Martina McBride and Kathy Mattea presented UMG Nashville artist Kacey Musgraves with her first Female Vocalist of the Year honor. Musgraves also picked up the Music Video of the Year honor earlier in the day for “Rainbow.” Musgraves has previously taken home four CMA Awards, including New Artist of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year (Golden Hour) and the International Achievement Award.
“The female creative spirit, the female energy is really needed right now. Whether it’s me up here or any of the other women in this category, it’s a beautiful thing…I’m really grateful to be here,” Musgraves said.
Warner Music Nashville’s John Esposito and team had more to celebrate, as Blake Shelton earned his first Single of the Year win, for “God’s Country.” He dedicated his win to two beloved industry members we lost this year, busbee and Earl Thomas Conley.
Sony Music Nashville’s Morris picked up a major win, earning her first Album of the Year accolade for GIRL, which she co-produced alongside Greg Kurstin and the late busbee.
“Thank you so much. This is incredible. Thank you country music and to my peers in this room that I respect so much for voting for me for this,” she said. Morris went on to thank her manager Janet Weir, husband Ryan Hurd, and producer Kurstin, before paying tribute to busbee, who passed away in late September at age 43.
“I would be really remiss if I didn’t mention a huge facet of why this album sounds the way it does, and we miss him so dearly,” Morris said. She also thanked his wife, Jess. “Thank you for sharing your husband with us…My heart goes out to you and your beautiful daughters. I hope that when they listen to this record or any of the songs he made that made us all better, they know how amazing their father was,” Morris added.
Sony Music Nashville’s Randy Goodman and team continued to celebrate as another label artist, Luke Combs, took home two honors, including the coveted Male Vocalist of the Year honor, Combs’ first time receiving the award. The crowd roared “Luuuuuke” as he took the stage to accept the honor.
He recalled watching as Vince Gill won the award numerous times in the ‘90s. “Everybody in this room means everything to me, and this award means everything to me. This is a moment I will never forget.” Combs said.
Combs’ song “Beautiful Crazy,” which he wrote alongside Wyatt Durrette and Robert Williford, was named Song of the Year. Combs also performed “Beer Never Broke My Heart.” The honors cap a week that has seen Combs release his sophomore full-length album, What You See Is What You Get, which is poised to debut at No. 1.
Warner Music Nashville earned another accolade as Dan + Shay‘s Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney celebrated their first win as CMA Vocal Duo of the Year.
“This is overwhelming. I mean, Brooks & Dunn, are you kidding me? I have so many family and friends watching right now,” Mooney said before thanking country radio and sending love to his grandmother. “I love country music it raises us and teaches us so much about empowerment.”
“Thank you country radio for playing these songs and the country music fans,” Smyers added.
Lil Nas X was an early winner in the day, getting the trophy for Musical Event of the Year for his record-breaking smash “Old Town Road (Remix)” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.
This year’s awards show performances continued putting country music’s female entertainers in the spotlight.
Morris, who had the most nominations this year with six, performed a soulful rendition of “Girl,” surrounded by a stage of flowers, and clad in a white dress with flowing sleeves. Reba stunned with a take on her classic “Fancy,” with an elaborate, multilayered costume.
Kelsea Ballerini offered an acoustic rendering of a new track “homecoming queen?” before she was joined by Lindsay Ell on guitar for a tribute to Little Big Town with a version of “Girl Crush”—they were later joined by Maddie & Tae and Runaway June, Ashley McBryde and Carly Pearce, before Little Big Town added their signature harmonies as all the performers met center stage.
“You are looking at the future of country music,” Fairchild told the audience both in the Bridgestone Arena and at home.
Female Vocalist of the Year winner Musgraves teamed with music legend and fellow Texan Willie Nelson for the chill “Rainbow Connection.”
The ladies of country music weren’t the only ones with amazing collabs.
Brooks & Dunn were joined by Brothers Osborne on B&D’s “Hard Workin’ Man.” Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton teamed for their first televised performance of “Dive Bar.”
A few pop collabs were included, as P!nk and Chris Stapleton joined forces for “What Would You Say.” P!nk previously performed on the CMA Awards in 2017, when she performed the song “Barbies.” Halsey and Lady Antebellum teamed for Lady A’s “What If I Never Get Over You” and Halsey’s “Graveyard.”
While some female artists did perform their current or recent singles (Miranda Lambert’s literally bubbly performance of “It All Comes Out In The Wash” or Carrie Underwood’s soaring and sultry “Drinking Alone”), the majority of new music came from the male performers. Shelton performed “God’s Country,” while Thomas Rhett offered “Remember You Young,” backed by a string section.
Entertainer of the Year nominees Keith Urban and Eric Church each offered acoustic takes on current releases, as Urban performed “We Were” and Church performed “Some Of It.” Sony Music Nashville continued its hot streak as Old Dominion picked up their second Vocal Group of the Year honor and performed their single “One Man Band.”
Parton led a three-song performance, joined by CCM artists Zach Williams and for King & Country. for King & Country and Parton began with “God Only Knows,” and Williams joined on “There Was Jesus.” She then performed her newly-released chart-topper “Faith,” backed by the Christ Church choir.
Joe Walsh, John Osborne, Sheryl Crow and Dierks Bentley teamed to tribute Kris Kristofferson, the winner of the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. They offered “Me and Bobby McGee,” along with Chris Janson on harmonica.
With early female wins for New Artist and Album, and the awards show’s focus on giving face time to female artists in light of their struggles at country radio in recent years, the evening seemed primed for the sole female Entertainer nominee, Underwood, to take home the trophy. Fellow nominees Keith Urban, Chris Stapleton and Eric Church also led top-selling tours this year.
However, Garth Brooks‘ juggernaut of stadium shows, including an upcoming stop this weekend at Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium, won the evening, as he was announced as the 2019 Entertainer of the Year, making it his seventh win. Brooks—notably the only 2019 Entertainer nominee not on the UMG Nashville roster—extends his record streak as as the artist with the most CMA Entertainer wins. This year, in addition to his stadium tour, Brooks also teamed with Shelton for the single “Dive Bar,” and led his own string of pop-up club shows in various cities, dubbed the Dive Bar Tour.
In true modest Brooks fashion, he used the majority of his acceptance speech to single out other entertainers that evening that he enjoyed.
“Very sweet. Always try to call it like I see it,” Brooks said, accepting the honor. “If they gave this award for this show tonight, I’d have to give it to Reba McEntire’s performance. Kelsea Ballerini, if you wanna know what an entertainer is, take a guitar and just a single voice in the middle of an arena and shrink a room: fantastic performance tonight. Luke Combs, wherever you’re at, this [CMA Entertainer of the Year award] has got your name on it in the future, I can tell you that right now.”
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