Lainey! Lainey! Lainey! Triple threat—writer, vocalist, live performer—and quintuple winner, hardworking farmer’s daughter Lainey Wilson repeated as Female Vocalist at the 2023 Country Music Association Awards and won her first Album of the Year for Bell Bottom Country, a coveted award to be sure. But the real stunner was the Baskin, Louisianan’s triumph in Entertainer of the Year, a win many were deeming an upset.

Far more than a how-many-tickets-do-they-sell award, Nashville views the Entertainer of the Year as a way to reward an artist of singular creativity, resonant impact and taking the genre and what it represents to new heights; representing country music in strong ways around the world.

After a dozen-year rise, finally breaking through after living in an RV outside a studio, creating breaks and always believing in her dream, Wilson’s unique, Loretta Lynn-esque songwriting style, Jay Joyce-honed production sound that is as classic country as it gets and winning believe-in-yourself persona resonated with voters. Casting their ballots for someone who’s a brilliant writer and vocalist, building it day-by-day, spoke to a belief in a rigorous creativity and work-for-it commitment.

Wilson also won Musical Event and Music Video of the Year for “Wait in the Truck,” the powerful domestic violence retribution anthem duet with HARDY. Handed out on Good Morning America earlier that morning, it started her five-win day out with momentum.

Talking about Dolly Parton’s inspiration and advice backstage, Wilson acknowledged the importance of staying true to one’s individuality and taking risks. She also noted what an exciting time it is to be in country music, citing her peers and emerging superstars Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs, HARDY, Ashley McBryde and Kelsea Ballerini, among several.

Even more powerful was her admission—after saying onstage “it feels like country music loves me back”—that she always believed this moment would come. “Those lonely nights in my camper, I was envisioning this,” she explained. “Back then, I was outside the Bridgestone Arena, trying to get a wristband just so I could get down in the pit and close to it. And this is going to sound weird, but I’ve always had a weird sense of peace about this. I always knew. My Momma and Daddy did, too.”

In many ways, the night went exactly as expected. Chris Stapleton won his seventh Male Vocalist of the Year, Old Dominion won their sixth consecutive Vocal Group and Brothers Osborne took home their sixth Vocal Duo.

Fan-favorite Jelly Roll gave the night’s most memorable acceptance speech with a full-on raver that built to a Pentecostal fervor about the power of redemption, gratitude and continuing to believe against all odds. Laughing about being a 39-year-old man winning New Artist, his presence was buoyant and passionate.

Jelly opened the show with Wynonna on his potent emo-country “Need A Favor.” An entire gospel choir—the Grammy-winning Fisk Jubilee Singers—filled the darkened stage as he and the flaming red-haired vocalist shared vocal licks on a song about hanging on even when you’re not sure redemption can be, the humility of surrender and the power of begging for grace.

Jelly also closed the show with K. Michelle on The Judds’ “Love Can Build A Bridge” as a tribute and reminder about the power of coming together. Taken from Broken Bow’s Judds’ tribute, it bookended the rapper-songwriter’s worldview with a hard nod to the genre’s roots.

The soul factor was in full display with The War and Treaty’s far-flung “That’s How Love Is Made,” featuring Americana icon Buddy Miller on guitar. For husband/wife duo Michael Trotter Jr and Tanya Trotter, the song was a tour de force matched only by Chris Stapleton’s surging rock-country “White Horse.”

Tracy Chapman became the first Black woman to win a CMA Award. “Fast Car”—predictably—won both Song and Single of the Year. Though a seemingly left field song choice, two-time Entertainer of the Year Combs had learned the song from his father—and recognized its timeless timeliness when he recorded and released it. Striking a chord in a nation watching the gap between the haves and the working poor widening, that depth of content and recognizing the unseen gave “Fast Car” an edge in a highly competitive category.

Classicism had a strong place in the Robert Deaton-produced ABC prime time awards telecast. Little Big Town offered the iconic open of “Delta Dawn” that set off, then merged with Tanya Tucker’s raw throaty delivery on the seminal hit from her days as a barely teen Lolita-meets-Tammy Wynette vocal powerhouse. Recently elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the platinum-tressed icon showed the vocal kinetics that’ve spanned half a century.

A visibly moved Kenny Chesney and longtime Coral Reefer/songwriter Mac McAnally delivered a tender “A Pirate Looks At 40” with just their two guitars before Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band led the crowd in an effervescent “Margaritaville” to honor Jimmy Buffett, sometime Nashville resident, former country scribe and bon vivant for dope smugglers, adventure fisherman, lost souls, reckless dreamers, poets and other characters. Kelsea Ballerini—nominated for Album and Female—took that same stripped-down approach to match her deeply vulnerable Rolling Up The Welcome Mat with only an acoustic guitar to deliver an almost confessional “Leave Me Again.” Slightly more robust, that same seeking and intimacy informed McBryde’s wisdom-offering “Light On In The Kitchen”—the more philosophical, less hilarious turn from the tattooed outlier speaks to the industry favorite’s breadth of songwriting.

The big throwback/buzzed about moment brought Wallen, HARDY and Post Malone together for a pair of songs that celebrated the late uber-tonker Joe Diffie, a mullet-sporting Grand Ole Opry member who embodied redneck good ole boy completely. Working a stage set towards the back of the arena, Wallen and HARDY romped through the hard-charging “John Deere Green” before Malone landed a joyously perfect bullseye with Diffie’s classic “Pickup Man.”

For Malone, who played Bonnaroo in a Dolly Parton peignoir of baggies and oversized shirt, the sincerity was apparent. While many pop acts have “gone country” as Jackson lamented, Malone—like Jelly Roll—has a deep reverence for this music, where it comes from, and he brought it hard and true vocally. At a time when country is moving forward through streaming, trap beats and a more urban slant, Malone’s presence—like Wilson, Stapleton, Jelly Roll and Wilson’s wins—declares the genre’s roots shall remain strong and vital no matter where the music is headed.

Wilson with trophies: Jamie Schramm/CMA
Jelly Roll: Josh Brasted/CMA

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