At the end of his second consecutive Entertainer of the Year acceptance speech Wednesday night (11/9), Luke Combs had one last comment to share. “I want to say one more thing about tonight. This is my fifth or sixth year of being at this awards show, and country’s sounding more ‘country’ than it has in a long time tonight.” The crowd cheered, and he was right on point.
As always, the 56th Annual CMA Awards featured performances from the big superstars of today, like Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Combs and more. It also recognized the genre’s roots by featuring music and performances from Alan Jackson, Reba, Patty Loveless with Chris Stapleton (which was arguably the best CMA performance of the night). Not to mention the surprise appearance by 1990s superstar Jo Dee Messina singing with Cole Swindell. There was also 1980’s sensation Ricky Skaggs accompanying Carly Pearce, as she sang a song that she wrote about Loretta Lynn. Indeed, the show kicked off with a tribute to Ms. Lynn by Reba, Carrie and Miranda. Country was celebrating country and several generations were included.
As always, the doors are open to those outside of the format, and that was especially appropriate this year, as the CMAs honored Jerry Lee Lewis. One of the founders of rock and roll music, even when he was raising hell in the 1950s with “Whole Lot of Shakin'” and “Great Balls Of Fire” country music was receptive to him. But by the end of the 1960s, he was exclusively a country artist. The tribute felt appropriate: Elle King, a pop singer who has become more and more welcome on the country charts, sang “Great Balls of Fire” backed by Nashville-based rock band, the Black Keys. (Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, by the way, has produced records for John Anderson and Hank Williams Jr.)
Pop superstar Katy Perry performed as well. But “Where We Started,” a duet with Thomas Rhett, is very much a country song (with very modern production). Then there was the Brothers Osborne and War Treaty performance honoring the Rolling Stones. The song was “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” but they made it sound country. And the Stones have strong country roots anyway: listen to their songs like “Country Honk,” “Dead Flowers” “Torn and Frayed” or “Far Away Eyes,” and you can hear it for yourself. But none of these performances by outsiders felt like “stunt casting.” It wasn’t Journey playing “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a song with no ties to country. It wasn’t Total Request Live stars the Backstreet Boys singing boy band anthem “Everybody.” It wasn’t Lil Wayne strapping on a guitar to perform a pop hit with Kid Rock.
Having covered country music for over 25 years now, I have watched country stars like Shania Twain and Taylor Swift become pop superstars. I was also around when George Strait and Alan Jackson released “Murder On Music Row” in 2000, a song eluding to the pop invasion of country music. This year’s showing of country music at the CMA Awards was one of the best I have seen in a long time.
I have often wondered why in country music, like many genres, an artist is huge, and then after a certain period of time, they no longer get radio attention and seem to fade away. Look at the resurgence of Wynonna Judd, who is better than ever musically, but until her mother’s tragic death in April, was sight unseen for years. Did we forget how great she was and why? An album she released long after her solo surge stint in country music in 2009, called “Sing Chapter 1,” was epic and one of my favorites.
Even Reba, who sang at the beginning of the show to honor Loretta Lynn, agreed with Luke in an Instagram post writing of the show, “The show was wonderful as Luke Combs said, there was a lot of country there, which I was so glad to see and hear. Mixing generations of country music was wonderful. So many I didn’t know and so many I was so glad to see again after so many years.”
So bravo to the CMA Awards this year for bringing back that wonderful country music just as it was. And it was so evident to all of us watching the show when Alan Jackson was singing his classic “Don’t Rock The Jukebox,” and every country singer in the audience was singing along to every word; the country stars of today loved that they brought it back too. Combs was even pounding his chest as he sang along.
I am so glad Luke pointed that out to us in his speech, and I hope it will be the new normal for every country music award show going forward.