CMT Music Awards: 5 things to know, from Gladys Knight and Mickey Guyton's duet to Kelsea Ballerini's speech
Five years ago, the country music industry didn't know what to make of social media sensation Kane Brown. Were his enormous streaming numbers real? Was he a songwriter? Could he translate YouTube and Facebook virality into Nashville stardom?
The answers all turned out to be "absolutely yes." But while Brown has racked up huge sales and sold-out concerts, he still tends to get snubbed by country award shows. But he had a very good night on Wednesday, as he won two trophies at the CMT Music Awards - the most of any artist - and co-hosted the telecast.
"This is the most nervous I've been all night," said Brown, 27, as he accepted male video of the year for his swooning ballad "Worship You." He thanked his wife and toddler daughter, who appeared in the video. "Everybody knows that I love family ... not just my family from home, it's my family that works with me, and everybody in country music. All the fans, everybody."
Brown closed the show with a rollicking rendition of his duet "Famous Friends" with Chris Young (they won for collaborative video), but not before Carrie Underwood swooped in to collect her inevitable trophy for video of the year. This is the ninth time in 15 years that the former "American Idol" winner has won the ceremony's biggest prize - this time, she shared it with John Legend, her collaborator on the duet "Hallelujah." The CMTs are country music's only fan-voted award show, and Underwood devotees really step up.
Rising star Gabby Barrett dropped out of the show at the last minute but still won female video of the year for "The Good Ones"; Little Big Town took home group video for "Wine, Beer, Whiskey"; and Dylan Scott landed breakthrough video for "Nobody." A complete list of nominees and winners is below; here are five things you might have missed from the show.
1) Kelsea Ballerini's pointed speech
Kelsea Ballerini, who co-hosted with Brown, also tends to be overlooked on award shows. So she appeared genuinely ecstatic when she won CMT performance of the year on Wednesday for her duet of "The Other Girl" with Halsey during last year's CMT Music Awards. "This is my first CMT award!" she exclaimed. "I'm beaming that it's a performance with another woman in music that I respect and that I love."
Then Ballerini politely fired back at the endless stream of social media comments that tell her she's not country enough, especially when she's collaborating with a pop star. "After this performance last year, there was a lot of chatter on, categorically, what genre that song did or didn't fit into," Ballerini said. "And the fact that you voted this as the winning performance tells me that you know where my roots are and that you know who I am."
The audience cheered loudly in agreement. "But it also tells me that you hear music as music, and it tells me that you love when people push boundaries and explore their artistry," she added, throwing in a plug for a future album. "And as I make a new record, that means the absolute world to me."
2) Mickey Guyton and Gladys Knight's show-stealing duet
Gladys Knight is having quite the country music-themed week: First, she served as the finale for the Kennedy Center Honors broadcast Sunday during the Garth Brooks tribute with a stunning cover of "We Shall Be Free." Then she and Mickey Guyton stole the CMT Music Awards with "Friendship Train," which Knight and the Pips released in 1969.
Knight and Guyton grasped hands and swayed and danced around the stage, as everyone else in the socially distanced venue jumped out of their seats. The duo seemed to have a blast, and they were eventually joined by Breland, the new country-trap star that has Nashville stars clamoring to work with him. (Breland, a Georgetown University alum, performed his song "Cross Country" and gave a shout-out to getting his degree "in the DMV.")
3) Chris Stapleton's performances
Was it just us, or did Chris Stapleton seem like he was having the most fun he has ever had at an award show? Usually, the singer looks quite stoic as he shows off his powerhouse vocals. But this time, performing in what appeared to be an empty field at Tennessee's Bonnaroo Farm, he belted out "Arkansas" with his wife/fellow musician Morgane Stapleton and looked simply joyful. It really has been a long, long year without concerts.
Later, he looked just as thrilled to provide backup vocals for Grammy-winning R&B star H.E.R. on "Hold On":
4) Lauren Alaina and Jon Pardi's duet
If the theme of this year's show was deserving singers finally getting their due ... is it time to discuss how and why Lauren Alaina has not had more hits on the radio? Her duet of "Getting Over Him" with Jon Pardi was sultry and fun, and Alaina's a naturally dynamic performer. Given that her powerful voice has only grown more impressive since her "American Idol" days, Alaina's difficulty with radio success becomes more inexplicable by the year.
5) The Linda Martell tribute
The most moving moment arrived early in the show, when Guyton presented country trailblazer Linda Martell with the CMT's second annual Equal Play Award.
"When I was growing up, I didn't hear Black women on country radio. I didn't see Black women performing country music on television. And to this day, only one Black woman has ever made the Top 20 country airplay charts, and that was all the way back in 1969," Guyton said. "She became one of the first Black country artists to find commercial success, and the very first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry. But all of her accomplishments came in the face of the constant indignities she endured as a Black female country artist. Her name is Linda Martell."
Martell, who accepted the award virtually, spoke about the racism she faced, and said she had to concentrate on not crying onstage after people said things like "Go back where you belong" or "You don't need to sing our kind of music." She also recalled being terrified to play to an all-White crowd at the Opry, but realized she truly did belong there when the crowd gave her three standing ovations. Martell concluded by telling women of color who are aspiring country singers to brace themselves, but urged, "Don't give up."
"Her career was cut short for just one reason: The color of her skin. ... Equal play is crucial so that the next generation of women like Linda can flourish in this industry," said Guyton, who recently became the first Black female artist to be nominated in a country category at the Grammys. She told Martell, "I would not be standing here today without you, and none of us would be here without you."
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