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DID THE CMA AWARDS
SIGNAL A SEA CHANGE?

Every now and then, the old guard gets up on its hind legs and votes. When they do, the result is music that drives, with quality songwriting, musicianship and a certain integrity packed into the backseat. Those years have seen sweeps from Alison Krauss, O, Brother, Where Art Thou? and Chris Stapleton.

At the 52nd Annual Country Music Association Awards, Stapleton, Keith Urban, Brothers Osborne, Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves, Mac MacAnally and even Kenny Chesney and David Lee Murphy were all winners.

Fittingly, the night included true highlight performances during a tribute to Hall of Fame inductee Ricky Skaggs that was about furious picking, bluegrass-tempered country and a traditional wave that broke three decades ago. “Highway 40 Blues” featured Urban and John Osborne on guitar, and “Country Boy” was led by Brad Paisley, while Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder played “Black Eyed Suzie,” with International Bluegrass Music Association sensations Sierra Hull and Carson Peters joining on mandolin and fiddle.

Stapleton, who won Male Vocalist for the fourth straight year, picked up his first Song and Single Awards for “Broken Halos” over Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha’s massive crossover “Meant to Be” and Dan + Shay’s ubiquitous “Tequila.” That he did it while perhaps recreating the lightning-in-a-bottle electricity of his Justin Timberlake breakout performance of “Friendship”/“I’ll Take You There” with Mavis Staples, Maren Morris, Morgane Stapleton and Marty Stuart says everything about his fervid musical integrity.

Equally relentless in his creative pursuit is Urban, who won his second Entertainer of the Year 13 years after his first. Backstage after his win, the always-humble Australian told the press, “Someone said, ‘Did you do any campaigning?’ No, we just played every night. I mentioned my father [in his acceptance speech] because he’s such a huge influence in my life. I wish he could’ve seen us tonight; he set me on the path I’m on.”

Brothers Osborne share the impact of a father who loved music. The commercial outliers known for barnstorming live shows and this year’s experimental Port St. Joe threepeated for Duo of the Year, as well as turning in a pyro-heavy performance on Vocal Event nominee “Burning Man” with Dierks Bentley.

Kacey Musgraves, another creative outlier who is mostly missing from Country radio, won her first Album of the Year for Golden Hour. The internationally focused songwriter, who’s seen massive airplay at Starbucks, toured with Harry Styles and John Prine and won multiple Grammys, proved people do want to hear women’s voices.

Underwood, the night’s co-host and only other female winner, took home her fifth Female Vocalist of the Year trophy after a move to UMG, where she re-teamed with original champion Cindy Mabe and co-produced the #1 debut Cry Pretty. Having performed the bravura ballad “Love Wins,” she told the media of the win that left her clearly emotional: “It gave me the opportunity to hear things in a different way. You want to be a great storyteller. But this was more about telling the story from the very beginning—getting to listen to my vocals and hear things in a new way.”

Combs, a throwback to the ’90s country of Joe Diffie and Ronnie Dunn, took New Artist. Looking more like the fans than anyone else onstage, he rolled out his brand of good-ole-guy honky-tonk with a rock edge, performing “She Got the Best of Me—one of his four straight #1s—with a red Solo Cup in hand.

Chesney, who missed the show due to a death in his family, picked up his third Vocal Event Award for “Everything’s Going to Be Alright.” For duet partner Murphy, who’d come to prominence in the ’90s with “Party Crowd” and “Dust on the Bottle,” it was not only his first win but his first nomination.

Old Dominion paired their Academy of Country Music Top Vocal Group with a CMA Vocal Group of the Year win. The likable band has built from touring in a van and breaking even to a half-dozen #1s, and their organic approach resonated with voters.

And sometime Coral Reefer, solo songwriter/artist and session man MacAnally won Musician of the Year for the 10th time, breaking Chet Atkins’ record.

Is it a sea change? Hard to say. Intriguingly, the night’s most compelling performances were often the most unadorned. Eric Church turned in a blistering “Desperate Man.” Garth Brooks debuted a song for Trisha Yearwood called “Stronger Than Me” that focused on their emotional connection. Midland lost three but planted a flag for their ’70s TexaCali hybrid with a sweltering, rhinestone-clad attack on Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down.” Musgraves’ “Slow Burn” saw matching ’70s burnt-orange polyester suits on her band as the only production value—letting the song speak. Even Pistol Annies’ jubilant “Got My Name Changed Back” took its spark from the musicianship—including Miranda Lambert’s YouTube-learned washboard chops—and vocal pluck.

The sizzle didn’t come from hydraulic lifts, cadres of dancers, special effects or guest star appearances, it was about the music and how it was delivered. These stripped-down performances let the music—supposedly the reason people care—shine through.

Backstage was a crush of the who’s who. Uber-managers Jason Owen, Clarence Spalding, Clint Higham, Coran Capshaw, Mary Hilliard, Carrie Edwards, Marian Kraft, Mark Hartley, Martha Earls, Ann Edelbute, Will Hitchcock and Bill Simmons rubbed elbows with Sony’s Rob Stringer, Randy Goodman, Ken Robold, John Zarling and Jim Catino; UMG’s Mike Dungan, Brian Wright, Mabe, Stephanie Wright and Lori Christian; Warner’s John Esposito, Ben Kline, Wes Vaus and Shane Tarleton; Broken Bow’s Jon Loba; the Opry Entertainment Group’s and CMA President Sally Williams; Steve Buchanan; uber-barristers Joel Katz and Jess Rosen; WME’s Greg Oswald, Jay Williams and Joey Lee; CAA’s Rod Essig, Darren Murphy and John Huie; Paradigm’s Jonathan Lavine; and free agent Rob Beckham, as well as producers Robert Deaton, George Flannigan, writer David Wild and the Country Music Association’s unflappable Sarah Trahern.

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