It was a great year for inspired acceptance speeches (looking at you, Jelly Roll!), but some of the most anticipated performances left us all meh
The 57th CMA Awards was full of historic moments: Lainey Wilson became the first woman to be named Entertainer of the Year since Taylor Swift in 2011; Tracy Chapman is now the only Black songwriter to win CMA Song of the Year; and Chris Stapleton broke his own record by scoring a seventh consecutive Male Vocalist victory. They are all things to be celebrated (and occasions to ask: What took so long?), as were many of the performances (we’re still buzzing over Stapleton’s “White Horse” and Kelsea Ballerini’s “Leave Me Again”).
But it wouldn’t be the CMAs without some expectations that failed to be met or some outright cringe moments. Here’s the best and worst of the big night — along with some things that left us wondering what on Earth were they thinking.
Best: Acceptance speeches were fire.
You can usually count on two shout-outs during any country awards acceptance speech: one to country radio and another to God (in that order). But this year’s CMA speeches were particularly inspired, off the cuff, and even graceful. Luke Combs was all class when winning Single of the Year for his version of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” immediately thanking the songwriter (who later became the first Black songwriter to ever win CMA Song of the Year) by name. Chris Stapleton paid tribute to his mentor and bandmate in the SteelDrivers’ Mike Henderson, who died in September, and Lainey Wilson acknowledged the dreams of aspiring women country singers everywhere in her EOTY acceptance. Then there was Jelly Roll, who turned the stage into a pulpit upon winning Best New Artist: “Keep going, baby!” he hollered. But any Best Speech trophy has to go to Brothers Osborne, who yet again showed why they’re the most normal “stars” in Nashville. John Osborne opened up about his high-school geekdom, while bro TJ had fun with the “ay” names of their fellow nominees: “Dan + Shay, Maddie & Tae, the War and Treat-ay, Brooks & Dunn-ay. And Brothers Osborn-ay.” It was a word nerd’s dream. —J.H.
WTF: Kelsea Ballerini is snubbed.
It went wrong from the very beginning, when after a year when she debuted on Saturday Night Live, appeared on the cover of Time magazine as part of their Next 100 list, released the absolutely stunning album Rolling Up the Welcome Mat (after the equally terrific Subject to Change), and capped things off with a hometown arena show in Knoxville, there was no Entertainer of the Year nomination for Kelsea Ballerini. That was the show’s first mistake, because not only has Ballerini wracked up the accolades and appearances, she’s done it all while staying faithful sonically to the genre of country music and bringing along others for the ride. The second mistake was sending her home with zero — yep, not one — award. Not to say Lainey Wilson wasn’t deserving, but this is what happens when the country music machine continues to only allow One Woman at a Time: Truly great work (and vocalists) go unrecognized. We’re damn lucky she still agrees to stick around. —M.M.
Best: Dan + Shay level up.
We all know Dan + Shay can sing the shit out any song, but they leveled up in their biggest way yet during the CMA Awards, delivering what was arguably the most powerful and seemingly spontaneous performance of the night with “Save Me the Trouble.” Shay Mooney stalked the stage like a pissed-off, jilted lover, all jacked up in a tight black T-shirt. (He kinda scared us, if we’re being honest.) Then, he boldly went for a knee slide that would do a young Springsteen proud. It was both theatrical and superb. But none of it would have worked without his musical partner Dan Smyers leading the band just a few feet away. After nearly breaking up during the pandemic, they instead rallied and reinvented themselves. Nashville is better for it. —J.H.
Best: Jimmy Buffett’s tribute brought the Parrothead vibes.
We all know how tributes can go during award shows: rushed medleys, clipped verses, scratch-your-head pairings, and mawkish commentary. So when Jimmy Buffett’s main inheritor, Kenny Chesney, and Buffett’s longtime musical collaborator, Mac McAnally, took the stage by themselves to duet “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” it was a welcome, and fitting, way to set the tone for what ended up being a heartfelt tribute to the late singer. The tribute only switched into high gear when the camera segued to a barefoot, shorts-wearing Zac Brown and an aviators-sporting Alan Jackson, both onetime Buffett compatriots, who led the crowd in a sing-along of “Margaritaville.” Every person in the arena seemed to be standing, grinning, and throwing themselves into the audience participation of the lyrics (“Salt! Salt! Salt!”). Somewhere, Jimmy is smiling. —J.B.
Worst: Post Malone didn’t live up to the hype.
On paper, Post Malone singing a medley of country songs with Morgan Wallen and Hardy sounds like a slam-dunk. The only problem is, that’s not really what transpired. Instead, we got a pair of Joe Diffie classics. To be clear, we’ve no problem with that at all (the late Diffie is a damn legend), but only Wallen and Hardy sang the first, “John Deere Green.” Posty didn’t appear until the second, “Pickup Man.” Not coincidentally, both songs and all three artists appear on Hardy’s new mixtape, which dropped right after the show, making the whole performance feel, at best, like an ad, and at worst, like overly rehearsed karaoke. Here’s hoping Malone’s country medley at Stagecoach 2024 delivers what this could have been. —J.H.
Best: Ashley McBryde shows the power of three chords and the truth.
Ashley McBryde didn’t need to do much at all in the way of musical or visual accompaniment — some light drumming and mandolin here, some simple overhead lamps there — to make her performance of the wistful ballad “Light on in the Kitchen” one of the most heartfelt moments of the evening. By the time she got the song’s “trust yourself” chorus, McBryde’s single cut through like a vital hymn full of homespun wisdom (“there’s more to life than being skinny”) and feel-good aphorism (“you better love yourself”) on a night when some of the most publicized and oversized performances felt like background noise. —J.B.
WTF: No Zach Bryan performance?
He was right there, sitting next to Jelly Roll in a Bob Dylan T-shirt and white baseball cap: Zach Bryan, arguably one of the genre’s biggest, most zeitgeisty stars (and a nominee for New Artist of the Year). Between sold-out stadium shows and Billboard Number Ones, Bryan showed up — but did he perform? Nope: Instead, we got two appearances onstage each from Jelly, Morgan Wallen, and Chris Stapleton and a medley from Luke Bryan of approximately 350 Number One songs, give or take. Maybe their choice of hosts indicates the CMA has no desire anyway to stay relevant, but Zach’s cross-genre appeal could have drawn a whole new set of viewers (and given Stapleton a nice reprieve from having to be every event’s palate cleanser). A Zach-Kacey Musgraves performance would have been the cherry on top — guess we’ll just have to wait for the Grammys to likely get that one right. —M.M.
Best: The War and Treaty put on a vocal masterclass.
The vocal duo of Michael and Tanya Trotter, who perform as the War and Treaty, provided the evening’s most impressive display of controlled and crafted vocal mastery when the duo traded verses on “That’s How Love Is Made.” Beginning the song shrouded in smoke and holding hands, the War and Treaty delivered their single from their recent album, Lover’s Game, as an unadorned, emotional performance of intimacy and vulnerability, with Michael and Tanya singing directly into one another’s eyes. It brought the Bridgestone Arena crowd to its feet. (Luke Combs could be seen saluting the couple with his red cup hoisted overhead.) The bruised romantic ballad also ended up becoming one of the most traditional roots-country moments of the night. —J.B.
Worst: Peyton Manning and Luke Bryan fumble the monologue.
As one Oscar-astute fan commented online about CMA hosts Luke Bryan and Peyton Manning, “If anyone can make a LaLa Land moment happen tonight, it’s these guys.” Alas, they didn’t erroneously announce the Entertainer of the Year winner, but they did make their opening monologue look like one big butt fumble. The jokes were cornpone, the delivery was often cringe, and the lack of topical humor — well, maybe the producers wisely chose to sidestep that. This was the second year that the NFL great and the American Idol judge hosted the CMAs. Perhaps the third time will be the charm, but we kinda don’t want to find out. —J.H.
WTF: The finale was all kinds of snooze.
Jelly Roll’s opening performance of “Need a Favor” was a spirited, non-obvious opening to this year’s awards (and included a surprise cameo by Wynonna Judd!). But it made a lot less sense for the breakthrough star to also close the show with R&B/country singer K. Michelle. Together, they sang a reverent, if staid, rendition of the Judds’ 1990 ballad about unification, “Love Can Build a Bridge.” We see what the producers were aiming for here: The country, and the genre, are so divided, their thinking went, that a ballad about healing and unity might make a nice ending. And both Jelly and Michelle indeed turned in an exquisite performance. But choosing that song as the finale put us to sleep after an already long show. —J.B.