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WINDS OF CHANGE
RUSTLE CMA AWARDS

While Garth Brooks won his seventh Entertainer of the Year at the 53rd Country Music Association Awards, the femme-centric night may prove to be more important for shuttling in a new wave of post-classic country.

Signifiers of a sea change were everywhere, as Maren Morris took Album for GIRL, Kacey Musgraves won Female and Video for “Rainbow,” Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus scored Vocal Event for “Old Town Road.” Dan + Shay got Duo, Ashley McBryde was chosen New Artist and Luke Combs doubled down with Male and Song for “Beautiful Crazy.”

Miles from Bro Country, these winners—along with Blake Shelton’s searing, Hank Jr.-evoking “God’s Country” for Single and fiddler Jenee Fleenor, the first woman to be named Musician—suggest that individuality and personal takes on country music are the gateway to the future. Each winner’s strong sense of self—on display throughout the night—informs their music.

Hosts Carrie Underwood, Reba and Dolly kicked off the packed opening segment by reprising “Those Memories of You,” recorded by Dolly, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris for the 1987 landmark Trio. From there, it was a toboggan ride through the XX-chromosome history of honky-tonk angels, with Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Gretchen Wilson, Terri Clark and Jennifer Nettles with Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman singing Loretta Lynn, while Morris led The Highwomen through Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” after which original firebrand Tanya Tucker joined the all-star onstage gathering. It was a veritable crush of music; perhaps a small amount of air would’ve helped the clearly enraptured audience more fully absorb the moment.

Halsey, who joined Lady Antebellum, proved that when you get into a song’s essence, music is universal. Their performance of “What If I Never Get Over You”/”Graveyard” melted down the notion of genres, as did P!nk and Chris Stapleton’s “Love Me Anyway.”

The notion of less is more provided standout moments including Kelsea Ballerini’s “Homecoming Queen,” Keith Urban’s “We Were” and Eric Church’s “Some of It,” while Dan + Shay’s strings ’n’ piano treatment of the ubiquitous “Speechless” and Morris’ soul take on “Girl” put the vocals up front and powerful. Just as impactful was the full-force honky-tonk thrust of Brooks & Dunn and Brothers Osborne’ redux of “Hard Working Man,” Combs’ frisky “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” Brooks and Shelton’s “Dive Bar” and Miranda Lambert’s saucy “It All Comes Out in the Wash.”

What’s intriguing is how many of these winners made their impact as outliers. Musgraves, who performed an inclusive “Rainbow Connection” with Willie Nelson, earned her award without any help from Country radio, and Combs built his momentum regionally, far from Music Row. McBryde joked backstage about being too tattooed for the room, even as she also struggles with airplay, and “Old Town Road” took virality into the stratosphere.

The outsider vibe even extended to the intense “God’s Country,” about which Shelton noted, “It wasn’t safe to do, with what’s on the radio now. It stuck out like a sore thumb, but people really wanted it.”

What the people want are songs that embody the truths of their lives and sounds that evoke various strands of country music, evidenced by one of the most diverse groups of winners in recent history.

Also suffusing the arena was the gently aching presence of the recently deceased busbee, the creative-force writer/producer, whose memory was invoked several times (notably in acceptance speeches by Shelton and an effusive Morris). This quiet collaborator had an impact on many of the night’s nominees and winners.

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