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CMT ARTIST OF THE YEAR: CHANGING THE CONVERSATION
INTO ACTION

In a world of #MeToo, Time’s Up and TomatoGate, actions speak louder than words. CMT: Country Music Television, the network that’s given you The Next Women of Country, as well as SVP of Music Strategy and Talent Relations Leslie Fram’s Change the Conversation consortium, used the moment to make their annual CMT Artist of the Year ceremony Wednesday night an all-female affair.

Miranda Lambert. Carrie Underwood. Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini were all honored as Artists of the Year; Loretta Lynn was named Artist of a Lifetime.

The Pistol Annies, Lambert’s girl group with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, opened the night with “Best Years of My Life.” Setting a high bar musically, the performance represented both Lambert’s sense of girl power and truth-telling. It also suggested women are meant to be friends, not competitors vying for limited space.

Lambert’s award was presented by Elle King, who talked about the Texan’s songwriting. Lambert is both a vessel a joy and a model of focus; for her, the stage is meant to be shared, but it’s also about the work that needs to get done to get there, and the willingness to be vulnerable when you sit down to write or get onstage to perform.

Leave it to Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild to power namedrop every aspiring young country female (Danielle Bradbury, Runaway June, Kelleigh Bannen, Kassi Ashton, Ashley McBryde, Cassadee Pope, RaeLynn, Mickey Guyton, Lucie Silvas, Jillian Jacqueline, Heather Morgan, Abby Anderson, Aubrey Sellers, Tenille Townes, Rachel Wammack, Maddie & Tae, Carly Pearce, Ruthie Collins, Maggie Rose, Caitlyn Smith, Lindsey Ell, Jana Kramer, Clare Dunn, Lauren Alaina, Margo Price, The Sisterhood, Natalie Stovall, Kree Harrison, Brook Eden, Candi Carpenter, Lillie Mae, Emily Hackett, Little Feather, Kalie Shorr, Lacy Cavalier) in her acceptance to make sure the world knew they were coming. Kimberly Schlapman returned to the mic after the play-off music, insisting on thanking their “Mamas for raising us, and for my little girls at home, you can do anything in the world you can dream up.”

The women of LBT did some pretty intense dreaming. Joined by Gladys Knight, they moved seamlessly from a seriously nuanced reading of the Mike Reid-penned/Bonnie Raitt-associated “I Can’t Make You Love Me” to backing the soul queen on a staggering “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” delivered as much from the standpoint of a witness as a plea for that final carnal consort.

Soul also dripped from the pipes of Maren Morris, who was introduced by Smokey Robinson and joined by the incandescent Brandi Carlile, in tribute to Aretha Franklin. Morris was a vocal flamethrower to Carlile’s more honeyed tone on Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” the two of them creating an almost blood harmony.

Literally “taking it to church,” Scott paired with Tori Kelly for a taste of “American Honey” before opening it up into full gospel mode with Kirk Franklin. When the stage walls parted, a gospel choir was there to raise their voices in a feverish “Oh Happy Day” during which Franklin commanded the industry-heavy floor of Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Hall to get up.

Midway through, Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek was introduced to present and accept Lynn’s award; the legend from Butcher Holler, Kentucky, was unable to attend. With her Texas accent on display, the actress told the room, “I loved playing Loretta in Coal Miner’s Daughter. I had the hair, the bus, the clothes, but I think we can all agree, there’s only one Loretta Lynn.

“I visited with her this afternoon, and she asked, ‘What’re ya gonna wear tonight, Sissy?’ And I told her I wasn’t sure,” Spacek continued, choking back tears. “She said, ‘You wanna wear one of my gowns?’ That’s the kind of girlfriend she is.”

The notion of friendship permeated the night. Ballerini, who performed “Ghost in This House” with Alison Krauss, cited the women who’ve shared stages with her. In a flowing nude beige dress with matching bugle bead stripes, she namechecked Shania, Reba and Miranda before closing with the words, “What I want to say to CMT: Thanks for being the one changing the conversation into action tonight.”

Changing the conversation is a start, but action is critical. In a genre that once boasted an embarrassment of great women vocalists—Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Faith Hill, Suzy Boggus, Pam Tillis, Martina McBride, Allison Moorer, Lee Ann Womack, Kathy Mattea, k.d. lang and Rosanne Cash, most of whom received minimal if any recognition during the live telecast—their singular perspectives, musical underpinnings and the ability to speak truth to women made the genre not just interesting, but honest.

For radio, it may mean looking at how they do their research, and keeping in mind that men thinking they’re writing about how women feel or producing/picking songs for women is not the same thing. Hearing Underwood’s torchy soprano a cappella in a single spotlight doing the first verse of Tammy Wynette’s classic “Stand by Your Man,” especially the glorious irony of Wynette’s gentle admission, “after all, he’s just a man,” speaks volumes about a woman’s true strength.

The Betty Wright of the night, Underwood served as the genre’s clean-up woman. Graciously sharing her stage with tour mates Maddie & Tae and Runaway June, she gave a master class in foremothers as she took the young artists through The Judds’ “Rhythm of the Rain,” Shania’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” McBride’s “Independence Day” and Hill’s “Wild One,” though most of the songs were rushed to the point of feeling like a second-tier Vegas review, cramming way too much into way too little space.

But when Underwood held a single note during the “Cry Pretty” wrap-up, it was stunning, a reminder of exactly how insane her gift of tone and vocal control is. Equally compelling was her acceptance speech, after an introduction by sometime musical partner in crime Keith Urban.

In a bronze mini-dress, she made the strongest point of all, telling her fellow nominees, “You’re not here because you’re women, you’re here because you are dang good.” She then went on to thank all the women in the business: the managers, executives, hair, make-up and wardrobe people, songwriters, and musicians who are unseen. “I want little girls seeing us onstage, thinking, ‘I want to do this,’” she finished. “I want them to know this is possible.”

Perhaps the video montage segments could’ve honored some of the women who built the foundation instead of showing talking heads of the honorees. Certainly having the men of Lady A and LBT created an echo effect; but just as importantly, the larger reasons those three honorees mattered never emerged from the perspective of people so close to them.

Regardless, the show provided more focus and attention in one night than women get during an entire month in modern country music. Whether CMT can create a ripple effect remains to be seen, but for one evening, it truly was ladies’ night. Maybe the impact of honoring six women back-to-back can shatter the idea you can’t play one woman after another.

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