When winning the Entertainer of the Year award at the 2022 CMA Awards on Wednesday night (11-9), Luke Combs had the perfect response: “This is my fifth or sixth year at this awards ceremony, and country sounded more country than it has in a long time tonight.”
The CMA Awards’ role in turning the tide for country music dates back even longer. When Chris Stapleton unexpectedly won nearly every award at the 2015 CMA Awards, he was still a relatively unknown artist outside of his peers in the business. That was seven years ago. Then Stapleton and Justin Timberlake performed a 40-year-old song called “Tennessee Whiskey” on stage, shocking everyone in the audience.
In many ways, the event was interpreted as a rejection of Bro-Country, which was popular at the time. Since then, the mainstream countries as well as the CMA Awards indirectly have both been on an upward trend. However, there were more than just encouraging hints among a sea of alarming ones at the 2022 CMA Awards.
The power dynamic changed. Traditional country songs, tributes, and singers received more attention than modern ones. The modern stars tended to sound more like classic country musicians. The pop artists and performances stood out as oddballs and felt out of place.
The CMAs have always been open to bringing out a country legend for a 90-second vignette here and there. Chris Stapleton and Patty Loveless sang the popular country ballad “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” for more than six minutes as Darrell Scott, the song’s composer, played the dobro.
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The evening began with a tribute to Loretta Lynn that featured not just a medley of her hits but also the complete performance of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” About seven minutes passed throughout it. The final 20 minutes of the 2022 CMA Awards, in addition to the announcement of the Entertainer of the Year, were devoted to paying tribute to Alan Jackson.
Not to mention Carly Pearce performing “Dear Miss Loretta”—her tribute song to Loretta Lynn—alongside Ricky Skaggs and Sonya Isaacs, Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark, Pillbox Patti, and Brothers Osborne, or Elle King paying tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis. The country classics were everywhere during the 2022 CMA Awards.
What exactly is happening then? Not to sound too cynical, but a commercial choice played a role in some of this. It is an undeniable fact that Gen Z and Millennial listeners will not take time out of their busy schedules to watch a live music awards presentation. Many of them don’t even own or watch television at all.
Why not target the country music fans who are more likely to watch, the older and more devoted ones who have always supported you and who have been mostly ignored by the CMA Awards since Taylor Swift won Entertainer of the Year in 2009?
But a lot of this simply has to do with how much more country music there will be in 2022. New artists include Lainey Wilson and Carly Pearce. Ashley McBryde and Cody Johnson are also. Their music just so happens to sound more traditional and country. Luke Combs has a similar sense of security and heaviness as Chris Stapleton had for many years. Even so, this is a significant improvement over the days when Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line ruled the airwaves and turned off true fans of country music.
Country music has returned. And at the CMA Awards, in particular, country music is making a comeback. The future of country music has never been about blending more and more with pop and hip-hop; rather, it has always been about remaining distinct and autonomous in the field of popular music, despite the opinions of pontificators
who live outside the genre but who are read widely because they write for The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc. On the CMA Awards stage on Wednesday night, there were more steel guitars playing than we had maybe ever seen or heard in the previous 15 years.
That’s not to say fusing pop and hip-hop can’t have momentary commercial successes like Bro-Country. But that material fizzles out so swiftly and clearly, leaving a shambles for the genre to tidy up. This explains why, despite modest improvements, women in country music still find it difficult to acquire major traction.
Morgan Wallen is the lone survivor of the Bro-Country era. And despite the fact that his supporters wanted him to win the most accolades and think-piece writers were also rooting for him so they could disparage him and cast doubt on the country for honouring him, country music and the CMAs did the right thing by welcoming Wallen back into their community as an act of repentance.
They did the same for Maren Morris, who eventually performed despite initially expressing concern that she wouldn’t feel comfortable. However, the awards went to the more deserving and talented individuals.
However, neither the night nor the CMA Awards were flawless. What we didn’t see were some of the performers who are garnering a lot of interest from the indie and non-radio country scene. The War and Treaty and Marcus King gave performances from the Americana genre, which was appreciated.
But the fact that Zach Bryan wasn’t even asked to attend, much less play or compete for the night’s top awards, was beyond disastrous. Zach Bryan is currently the biggest thing in country music, possibly even larger than Luke Combs, aside from Morgan Wallen.
“Guys Zach Bryan stated on Thursday morning that he would never want to be taken into consideration for the CMA Awards. “I have no problems with my pride, and I appreciate all the love and support. I say this with the utmost respect for other country musicians. Institutions will always be strange.
To be clear, I’m not trying to diminish the value of a CMA; I admire every artist who earns one and the fact that they exist. I’m simply saying that, personally, having trophies on a shelf in my house is not one of my priorities. There is space there for more significant things.
Zach Bryan does not, however, require the CMAs. Whether they admit it now or not, the CMAs are the ones who need Zach Bryan. Despite being a part of the cord-cutting generation, Zach’s young fan base is the kind of engaged audience that would schedule a time to watch the CMA Awards if they knew he was performing or nominated for top awards. Not only did the CMAs lose out on an artist, but also a phenomenon.
The fact that they continue to omit to air an In Memoriam segment listing all the country stars we’ve lost in the past year is a conspicuous omission despite the tributes and respects paid to country greats at the 2022 CMA Awards. This used to be done by CMAs. This is still done during the ACM and Grammy Awards.
Even if it only takes 90 seconds to recognise all the deceased greats, like Naomi Judd, Olivia Newton-John, Mickey Gilley, and even performers like Luke Bell, it will mean a lot to their friends, fans, and families. No amount of tributes will make up for the CMA’s failure to make sure that practically everyone is at least mentioned or pictured during the presentation, for which they frequently receive unfair criticism.
From the support independent musicians receive outside of the mainstream industry to even the CMA Awards, which serve as the industry’s ultimate icon, country music is undeniably seeing a tremendous improvement. It doesn’t mean that issues and conundrums don’t persist or that extra caution isn’t required to prevent relapse and ensure that representation for all country music fans and opportunities for all artists continue to advance.
More importantly, though, is that we acknowledge the enormous progress we have made over the past six or seven years and make sure to express not just our displeasure but also our gratitude and satisfaction. We should also take a moment to celebrate the abundance of joy that country music has brought into our lives.
It can be difficult for traditional country music listeners to realise that things are changing for the better since they are so accustomed to being overlooked, sidelined, or simply insulted and rejected. Scar tissue and animosity have built up around their hearts over the years to the point where even the idea of something like the CMA Awards is treated with derision and hostility. But now it’s 2022, not 2014 anymore. The Country Music Association Awards welcomed back country music in 2022.