Maren Morris won a leading three awards at Wednesday’s 2020 CMA Awards, bringing home three, for single of the year, song of the year and female vocalist of the year. It was the first win in any of those categories for Morris, whose song “The Bones” was a smash in both the pop and country fields during the past year.
Eric Church won only one award, but it was the big one: entertainer of the year, generally considered the Country Music Association’s top prize. He had been nominated for the award three times before, including last year, when Garth Brooks got it, but this was Church’s first time accepting the win.
“If there was ever a year not to win this award,” Church said at the top of his climactic acceptance speech. Church explained that this year had mostly been “about loss — loss of life, loss of freedom, loss of kids being in school.” But, he added, in a rouse-the-troops speech, “It’s gonna be music that brings us out of this… That is the one thing that is gonna save the entire world.” He added, “Politics are about division; music is about unity.”
Eric Church accepts award for Entertainer of the Year at “The 54th Annual CMA Awards,” on Wednesday, November 11, 2020; live on ABC from Music City Center in Downtown Nashville.
Morris had three trips to the podium, and in her final turn, winning for female artist, she said, “I’m really gonna try not to curse. Sorry, Robert (Deaton, the show’s executive producer), if I do.” She then turned serious in citing a list of Black country or Americana singers that she wanted “to give recognition to, because I’m a fan of their music and the’yre as country as it gets: Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer, Rhiannon Giddens. … You’ve made this genre so so beautiful. I want you to know we see you.” In closing, Morris, the mother of an 8-month-old, said, “It’s been the most magical night. I get to go see my baby after this.
Luke Combs, who had also been considered a strong contender for entertainer of the year, was the only other multiple winner besides Morris. He took two honors, male vocalist of the year and album of the year, for “What You See Is What You Get.” Combs recently ascended back to the top of the album chart with a deluxe re-release of that collection, released a year after the original set.
Other winners accepting their prizes in person at Nashville’s Music City Center were Morgan Wallen, for best new artist, and Old Dominion as vocal group of the year. Dan + Shay accepted their vocal duo of the year award remotely from the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, where they had filmed a performance of “10,000 Hours” with duet partner Justin Bieber.
Despite the CMA’s promise in a controversial social media post that the show would be a “drama-free” zone, there was plenty of drama to go around immediately before and after the start of the ABC telecast, as three scheduled performers announced they had dropped out in quick succession. First came Lady A, an hour before the start of the show, revealing on social media that the COVID-19 diagnosis of a family member had caused the trio to exit the telecast. Shortly after the show, a similar revelation came from Rascal Flatts, who had been slated to do a farewell performance but canceled because of a band member contracting the coronavirus. A lesser-known performer, fiddle player Jenee Fleenor — who won the off-camera musician of the year award — was notably missing from her scheduled spot in the opening salute to Charlie Daniels, and revealed shortly afterward on social media that she had contracted COVID.
Those three performers joined two who had departed the show earlier in the week after testing positive, Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line and Lee Brice. After those two exits, the CMA released a statement saying, “Although this is incredibly disappointing, not only for the show but also for CMA personally as we care deeply for these artists and only want the best for them and their families, it does reassure us that our protocols are working. Our process enabled us to manage each situation immediately and before either artist ever entered our set. Most importantly, it prevented anyone else from being exposed.”
Reba McEntire co-hosted for the second consecutive year, joined by first-timer Darius Rucker. Their opening shared monologue was brief and indicated little interest in following in the comedic tradition of long-time cohosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, with topical humor and/or ribbing of the gathered stars largely missing.
McEntire couldn’t help but be topical, though, when at one point she stifled a cough and quipped, “Excuse me. Not a good time to do that, is it?”
The setting was a highly unusual one for the CMAs, with the show taking place in a large space in Nashville’s convention center instead of the Bridgestone Arena, and with the usual mass audience replaced by about two dozen socially distanced tables at which the stars sat with their guests in groups of up to four. Almost no masks were in evidence among the small audience, leading to questions during the virtual press conference held during the show.
In response to these questions, the CMA said in a statement, “We are following all protocols that have been put in place by the CDC as well as the creative unions to ensure we provide the safest environment possible. Prior to even stepping onto our footprint at MCC, every single person (including artists and their reps) was required to be tested, with many testing repeatedly throughout the week as an extra measure of precaution. Just as with COVID regulations at restaurants, all in attendance are required to wear a mask any time they leave their assigned seat. Staff and crew are also required to wear PPE at all times and, of course, practice social and physical distancing. Tables are spaced eight feet apart with no more than four people seated per table.”
The banquet-type seating was played up by the CMA as not just a nod to social distancing requirements but a tribute to the very first CMA Awards in the mid-’60s, which was done in a dinner setting, before TV cameras were brought in the following year.
The intimacy of the proceedings became most clear during the show’s emotional high point, a salute to Charley Pride that had the veteran star (and long-ago CMA Awards host) repeatedly saying how nervous he was, after performing a duet of his “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” with relative newcomer Jimmie Allen, one of the few other Black country stars to come along in his wake. Reaction shots showed an audience that, for once, lived up to an all-star billing rapt with attention to Pride’s speech.
Another sentimental moment came with Old Dominion’s performance of “Lookin’ for Love” in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the “Urban Cowboy” film, with soundtrack contributors Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee at one of the tables. Lee could be seen singing along to Gilley’s song, and he got a personal salute from co-host Rucker, who said that Lee had given him a cowboy hat many years back that he continued to cherish.
The musical high point of the telecast came via Little Big Town’s tribute to the late Kenny Rogers, as the vocal quartet picked not one of his most universally recognizable songs but a subtler choice, the somewhat self-lacerating “Sweet Music Man,” which many hardcore fans consider a particularly telling example of Rogers’ undervalued savvy as a songsmith.
Eulogistic salutes were scattered throughout the three hours. Some viewers wondered why there weren’t even more, with no nod to some recently passed legends like Billy Joe Shaver, or Nashville icon John Prine. But Daniels got major attention in an opening medley that featured Dierks Bentley, Brothers Osborne, Jason Aldean and Ashley McBryde; Jon Pardi did Joe Diffie’s “Pickup Man”; and Rucker and McEntire saluted Mac Davis with “In the Ghetto.”
Church’s win for entertainer of the year was somewhat surprising, not because he doesn’t enjoy strong favor with most factions of the country music community, but because many believed it would go to Carrie Underwood, who has been nominated three out of the last five years without winning. Underwood was considered a strong favorite last year, but lost to Garth Brooks, who took so much flack for it that he preemptively took himself out of the running this year. The CMA has been subject some criticism for only giving the entertainer of the year prize to a woman twice since 2000, with both of those going to Taylor Swift, back in 2009 and 2011.
What will be interesting to watch is how much of this CMAs love carries over to the Grammys, which will announce its 2021 nominations before the end of this month. Morris is considered the best bet for multiple Grammy nods, since “The Bones” was a multi-format success, succeeding at Top 40 and going No. 1 at AC as well as country radio. Combs is considered a dark horse in all-genre categories as well as a shoo-in for the country division. Dan + Shay’s and Bieber’s song could contend, as well. Most intriguing is what kind of vote-getting or -splitting might occur in the Grammys’ best new artist category, where Wallen is a contender but Gabby Barrett and Ingrid Andress — both of whom turned in memorable performances on the CMAs — are seen as standing at least a good a chance with the Grammy committees.