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UNITY, PHYSICAL AND SYMBOLIC, DEFINES THE 2020 CMAs

From the moment the tweet heralding it as a “no drama zone” was posted, it seemed like “What’s next?” from the Country Music Association Awards.

Whether it was the COVID cancellations—initially of Lee Brice and Florida George Line, then, day of, Lady A and Rascal Flatts; the insistence on “live” performances (though many were obviously pre-taped); scrubbed artist social-media posts to make contact tracing impossible; or the Associated Press pulling out of coverage due to a photo-policy dispute over not using screenshots from the broadcast that included the faces of guests in the audience, it felt like a reflection of the 2020 chaos.

So when Eric Church took the stage at the Music City Center to accept his first Entertainer of the Year award, he cored into the night’s basic truth about a year that’s brought the entertainment business to its knees. “If there was ever a year not to win this award …,” he said. “This award, this year, at least for me, has been about the loss of this year, 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 us all here tonight, together as country music. In-person love, not on Zoom.”

“And I really believe,” he added with North Carolina brimstone, “that it’s going to be music that brings us out of this—that’s the one thing that is going to save the entire world. Politicians are about division; music is about unity. And I promise you, it’s going to take everybody in this room to unite.”

The notion of unity and coming together tempered Luke Combs’ acceptance speech for Album of the Year for What You See Is What You Get as well. Not only thanking the obvious people, he took time to single out the fans, “each and every one of you.” Acknowledging the power of music to create meaning in people’s lives, the North Carolinian, who also won his second Male Vocalist of the Year Award, clearly shared his idol Church’s feelings.

Maren Morris, who’d swept Song and Single of the Year for “The Bones,” was also warmed by the spotlight. Accepting her first CMA Female Vocalist Award, she offered a shout-out to the Black female country artists whose music inspires her: Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer, Rhiannon Giddens. Citing those who’ve come before and who will come next, she shone the light and made her support known.

For Guyton, whose “Black Like Me” and “What Are You Going to Tell Her” have made her a voice of our time, Morris’ recognition helps position her as Grammy voting closes in. As a woman, as a Black artist, as someone speaking strong truth to power, her presence was deeply felt.

Jimmie Allen, nominated for Best New Artist, had the honor of presenting Charley Pride with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. Citing the importance of role models, Allen, who’d spent his last $100 to see the legend at the CMAs a few years prior, lionized Pride as “somebody who looks like me and sold 70 million records.”  

Ever gracious, the dapper 2000 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, Opry member and CMA Entertainer of the Year sang part of his signature “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” before thanking producer Jack Clement, longtime road manager John Daines, record executive Jerry Bradley, and his wife, Rozene, whom Chet Atkins “always said looked so pretty.”

Morgan Wallen, the kid from East Tennessee, made a phoenix-like return. Looking fresh and happy during “More Than My Hometown,” he took Best New Artist, thanking his parents, “my mama for pushing me so I could sing and my dad for making the sacrifices so I could.” With the global impact of “7 Summers Ago,” Wallen has shown, in a bumpy year, that his capacity for honesty creates a larger context in which to consider how powerfully he connects with the truth of small towns—and quite possibly Grammy voters.

While jokes were flying behind the scenes, the pre-taped performance of “I Hope You’re Happy Now” from Lady A’s Charles Kelley and Vocal Event winner Carly Pearce—who was also nominated for Song, Video and Best New Artist and who’d seen duet partner/fellow Vocal Event winner Lee Brice sidelined by COVID—was emotion-fueled.

Brice, of course, was not the only one missing. Also scratched was back-to-back Musician of the Year Jenee Fleener, who was slated to figure prominently in the live, show-opening Charlie Daniels tribute with Dierks Bentley, The Brothers Osborne, Jason Aldean and bad-ass, rocking Ashley McBryde.

In a year of great loss, The CMA Awards also made time for truly meaningful remembrances, of Mac Davis (hosts Reba and Darius Rucker doing “In the Ghetto”), Joe Diffie (Album of the Year nominee Jon Pardi romping through “Pick Up Man”) and Kenny Rogers (Little Big Town performing “Sweet Music Man”), as well as a 40th-anniversary Urban Cowboy tribute featuring Old Dominion, who took their third Group of the Year Award, performing “Looking for Love” while Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee looked on.

Notably absent was any mention of John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver or prominent session guitarist J.T. Corenflos, all of whom passed away in 2020. The oversight was ironic as many of the night’s best performances were influenced by the lean-voice, minimal-instrument style that defined those four men.

Chris Stapleton and wife Morgane were electric on “Starting Over,” with two voices, one mic and one guitar, while Miranda Lambert’s “Settling Down,” with one acoustic and one electric guitar, echoed lost hours in Texas roadhouses.

Entertainer/Male Vocalist Keith Urban, beaming in from Australia, showed how thrilling a guy on a chair with a guitar can be. He dedicated his performance of “God Whispered Your Name” to “all the first responders, healthcare workers and their families.”

Also joining remotely, from the Hollywood Bowl, Dan + Shay brought in Justin Bieber for “10,000 Hours.” They repeated their Duo of the Year win, continuing a seemingly unstoppable sweep of awards shows this year.

Brothers Osborne rocked the Hank Jr./Southern-rock tilt of country music with “All Night,” Gabby Barrett’s Single of the Year, “I Hope,” was moody and sexy, and Morris presented “The Bones” with a jazz/torch ending, flexing massive vocal chops in the larger moments. Song of the Year nominee Ingrid Andress delivered “More Hearts Than Mine,” weeping at her piano.

In the end, even more than the sense of achievement enjoyed by the very deserving winners, there was a feeling of community. Rising supernova Combs declared in the virtual press area, “I was super-hyped when [Eric] won ... To watch him win an award I think he should’ve won more than once … ”

With the atmosphere in the room described as “weird” or “odd” by several in attendance, the eight feet between tables, four people max at each and mandatory mask any time you left your assigned seat, the hope of a first step toward coming back together for live music was palpable.

After the show, Church finished the thoughts he’d started onstage, reflecting: “Everything we see in daily life is division. Music has nothing to do with division; it’s about unity. It’s about putting your arm around the guy next to you. No matter what team he roots for or voted for, you don’t care. That unity is what makes us America.”

Amen.

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