New Winners Abound At CMA Awards

Eric Church accepts award for Entertainer of the Year at The 54th Annual CMA Awards. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

New winners abounded at last night’s (Nov. 11) Country Music Association Awards.

Most notably, Eric Church cinched his first CMA Entertainer of the Year honor after three previous nominations.

He humbly accepted the honor, reflecting on what 2020 has meant to to him.

“If there was ever a year not to win…” Church laughed as he took the stage. “This year, at least for me, has been about loss – loss of life, loss of playing shows, loss of freedom, loss of kids being in school… And you know what the win is? The win is we all were here tonight, together as Country music – in person, live and I believe this, I really believe this: It’s gonna be music that brings us out of this. That is the one thing that’s gonna save the world. Politicians are about division; music is about unity.”

Maren Morris, a three-time winner this year, took home her first wins for Female Vocalist of the Year, as well as Single of the Year and Song of the Year for “The Bones.” Songwriter Laura Veltz, a first-time nominee this year, also earned her first win for Song of the Year as a co-writer on “The Bones”, and Jimmy Robbins won his first CMA Award with the song.

Morris’ Sony labelmate Luke Combs took home his first Album of the Year win (for What You See Is What You Get), along with his second Male Vocalist of the Year honor.

Luke Combs. Photo: John Russell/CMA

Morgan Wallen, Carly Pearce, and Lee Brice also picked up their very first CMA Awards honors, with Pearce and Brice earning Musical Event of the Year for “I Hope You’re Happy Now.” Wallen was awarded New Artist of the Year.

Due to COVID-19 precautions, this year’s CMA Awards looked vastly different—no Bridgestone Arena filled with fans cheering, but rather the show harkened back to its more modest beginnings in 1967, a non-televised banquet and show.

Held this year at Music City Center, nominees and performers were socially distanced at tables throughout the room, with two performance stages flanked either end of the room with a smaller center stage for awards acceptance speeches.

The effect was intimate but energetic, a club lounge vibe with an arena-sized passion coming from the performing artists, who were clearly happy to be back onstage in front of an audience.

Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker. Photo: John Russell/CMA

Co-hosts Reba and Darius Rucker welcomed viewers and the limited in-house audience made of nominees and performers to the CMA Awards—“or as I like to call it, my favorite Wednesday of 2020,” Reba said.

“In 2020, it’s great to be anywhere,” she added. “Tonight’s a wonderful time to be together, sing together and be together.”

Even with the CMA’s COVID-19 precautions, two more acts dropped out as the show got underway, making for some last-minute adjustments. The evening’s co-host Rucker performed his single “Beer & Sunshine” without Lady A, who performed on the recorded version of the track. The trio pulled out of the CMA telecast just before the start of the show due to a COVID-19 exposure. As the show got underway, Rascal Flatts announced they would not be taking part in the CMA Awards due to a positive COVID test within the band. Fiddle player Jenee Fleenor, who picked up her second Musician of the Year honor last night, also dropped out of the show due to COVID-19. Lee Brice and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard had dropped out of the awards show earlier in the week.

Sony Music Nashville artists took home the lion’s share of honors in several categories. Maren Morris launched the show with a pair of major wins, as “The Bones” earned Single and Song of the Year.

“This is very weird but I love this kind of setup because we can all hang out all night together and that’s a first…It has kind of been a medicine for this year, this crazy year,” she said.

Maren Morris. Photo: ABC

After her Female Vocalist of the Year win, Morris used her acceptance speech to honor Black female country artists and their musical contributions.

“There are some names in my mind that I want to give recognition to because I’m just a fan of their music and they are country as it gets. I just want them all to know how much we love them back and just check out their music after this: Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer, Rhiannon Giddens.

“There are so many amazing Black women that pioneer and continue to pioneer this genre and I know they are going to come after me, they’ve come before me, but you’ve made this genre so, so beautiful and I hope you know that we see you. Thank you for making me so inspired as a singer in this genre.”

In addition to Combs’ aforementioned wins, Sony labelmates Old Dominion picked up a third consecutive win for Vocal Group of the Year. Old Dominion also made tribute to the 40th anniversary of the film Urban Cowboy with Johnny Lee’s “Looking for Love.” Lee and Mickey Gilley were in attendance. Miranda Lambert picked up the Music Video of the Year honor for “Bluebird.”

The Vocal Duo of the Year category celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, with the first category honor being given to Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in 1970. This year, Vocal Duo of the Year went to Dan + Shay. Performing from the Hollywood Bowl and eerily highlighting the empty seats, Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber performed a stripped-down rendition of their smash hit “10,000 Hours.”

Morgan Wallen. Photo: ABC

“I did not expect to get this,” Wallen said in accepting his New Artist of the Year honor. “I’d like to thank the Good Lord first of all. I’d like to thank my Mama for always being the one to push me to sing. My Dad for always making the sacrifices for me and my family so I could sing, and to my team and for Nashville for accepting me into your family. It’s been a great five years since I moved here,” said Wallen, who also performed “More Than My Hometown” during the show, and immediately after, announced a January release date for his upcoming album.

Many of the performances throughout the evening honored musical titans that died over the past year, including Kenny Rogers, Charlie Daniels, Mac Davis, and Joe Diffie.

Dierks Bentley started the show standing alone onstage, with a lone spotlight, as he performed “Long Haired Country Boy” in tribute to Daniels on center stage.

The show moved to a side stage as Brothers Osborne joined Bentley on “Trudy.” Then Ashley McBryde handled spitfire lyrics of “Texas” with ease, accompanied by John Osborne’s smoldering guitar licks. Jason Aldean followed with “Devil Went Down To Georgia.”

Jon Pardi brought ‘90s country intensity with his tribute to the late Diffie with a performance of “Pickup Man,” earning an enthusiastic standing ovation from many in the crowd. Little Big Town honored Kenny Rogers with their heavenly harmonies on a rendition of “Sweet Music Man,” while McEntire and Rucker paid tribute to Davis with a rendition of the Davis-penned Elvis classic “In The Ghetto.” Curiously missing from the evening’s tributes was any homage to singer-songwriter John Prine, who died earlier this year from COVID-19 complications and penned songs including George Strait’s “I Just Wanna Dance With You” (which earned Prine a CMA nomination for Song of the Year in 1998), as well as his own sterling classics such as “Sam Stone” and “Hello In There.”

Some performances, such as Brothers Osborne’s blues-rock soaked performance of  “All Night,” and Kelsea Ballerini‘s semi-theatrical performance of “hole in the bottle,” brought up the energy, but it was the evening’s quieter moments that often had the most impact, such as Ingrid Andress’ stunningly vulnerable rendition of “More Hearts Than Mine” which ended with the singer in tears, Allen’s soothing rendition of his breakthrough radio hit “Best Shot,” Chris and Morgane Stapleton‘s musical gut-punch of a performance on “Starting Over,” or Miranda Lambert‘s stripped-down take on “Settling Down.”

The evening’s highest tribute, the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, was given to Charley Pride. Between his chart debut in 1966, and 1989, Pride had 29 No. 1 country hits and over 50 Top 10 songs. In 1971, he was named CMA Entertainer of the Year as well as Male Vocalist of the Year in both 1971 and 1972. Pride was also the first Black man to co-host the CMA Awards, taking the reins in 1975 alongside Glen Campbell. He became a Grand Ole Opry member in 1993 and in 2000, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He holds three Grammy Awards and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Recording Academy in 2017. Previous recipients of the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award include Willie Nelson (2012), Kenny Rogers (2013), Johnny Cash (2015), Dolly Parton (2016) and Kris Kristofferson (2019).

Jimmie Allen and Charley Pride. Photo: ABC

Jimmie Allen presented Pride with the honor and joined the legendary entertainer for Pride’s 1971 signature hit “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” as the audience rose and sang along (with the cameras panning to Thomas Rhett and his wife Lauren, who danced along to the tune).

“Thank you for all the songs and for breaking down so many barriers,” Allen said, calling Pride his “hero.”

The 86-year-old Pride humbly accepted his honor with an all-too-brief and sweet speech, saying “I want to thank CMA for this award,” also thanking Jack Clement, Jerry Bradley, among others. “To all my fans, I want to say thank you,” Pride summed.

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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