The country community was rocked by the loss of several legends this year, including Loretta Lynn, who 50 years ago became the first woman to win the Country Music Association Awards’ Entertainer of the Year award, and Jerry Lee Lewis, who inducted the country Music Hall of Famer on October 19, just nine days before his death. Both icons received their due tributes at the 56th annual CMA Awards, held on Wednesday, but one of those honors was a bit more fiery than the other – literally – and was definitely a lot more polarizing.
The show opened with vintage footage of trailblazer Lynn accepting her Entertainer of the Year award at the 1972 CMAs ceremony, followed by a medley of Lynn hits by three of country music’s biggest female superstars – Carrie Underwood, the cheeky “You Ain’t Woman” sang Enough (To Take My Man), Miranda Lambert with “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin” and Reba McEntire with “You’re Lookin’ at Country” – before all three for “Coal Miner’s Daughter” merged.
Another Lynn successor, Carly Pearce, performed her 2021 original Dear Miss Loretta and introduced her performance by saying, “I grew up in Kentucky like the great Loretta Lynn. My Mamaw Pearce and I loved listening to Loretta’s songs together. I think Mamaw loved Loretta so much because she was also a miner’s daughter. I’ve never met Loretta — I always wish I had — but I wrote this song as a tribute to her because I so admire everything about her, especially how she wrote about her life without apology. Loretta, this is for you.”
While the Lynn tributes were sweet and sentimental, the tribute to Lee was pure rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. Alt-Americana agitator Elle King, along with Ohio blues garage duo The Black Keys, lit up the stage – yes, literally, as King set her piano on fire – for a rousing and rowdy “Great Balls of Fire.” King, in patent leather pants painted with “THE KILLER” emblazoned with rhinestones on her bum, in Juicy Couture style, growled and shrieked and pounded the keys as the keys chugged and grooved.
The Twitter reaction was divided. Some fans loved the Lewis tribute’s unpredictable, raw energy, but others criticized King’s form-fitting outfit and Gene Simmons-esque tongue wagging. Some critics accused King of not actually playing the piano live, not being country enough, being rude and disrespectful, or even being drunk. This however was the liveliest, lightest moment of the night, and it was the kind of tribute the wild man, the killer himself – and maybe even the rebel girl Lynn – would probably have appreciated.
“Great Balls of Fire” wasn’t the only rock ‘n’ roll moment at Wednesday’s three-hour CMAs ceremony. The duos The War and Treaty and Brothers Osborne team up to preview a track from “Nashville’s Love Letter to the Rolling Stones.”,” Stoned cold country, a forthcoming all-star collection of rural Stones covers, and they heated the stage in their own way with It’s Only Rock & Roll. And earlier in the night, Brothers Osborne had a chance to honor the legacy of another country legend who tragically passed away in 2022, Naomi Judd.
Naomi’s daughter and Judd’s bandmate Wynonna Judd presented Brothers Osborne with the Duo of the Year award, first taking a moment to say candidly from the podium, “In death there is life, and here I am. Thank you for your love and your support. The past six months have been a time of sadness and a time of gratitude. And I’m humbled and honored to still be sitting at the country music table tonight. I have the opportunity to present the CMT Duo Award, which Mom and I have won seven times.” Accepting this year’s award, Judd’s superfan TJ Osbourne gushed, “There have been so many surprising moments throughout this career. The fact that I moved to Nashville and was allowed to stay here and ended up not being allowed to eat ramen noodles came as a surprise. And being here tonight and then being in the presence of Wynonna while I win this award is going to be one of the greatest highlights of my entire life. This is so crazy to me.”
But perhaps the most touching speech about the loss was given by frontman Matt Ramsey when he accepted Old Dominion’s Vocal Group of the Year award. “Obviously we’ve lost a lot of legends, but there’s nobody in that category, and really no category, that would be here without Alabama. And we just lost Jeff Cook,” he said, referring to the Alabama co-founder and guitarist, who died Nov. 7 a tape, You know? I’m so thankful to have my friends and I can’t imagine losing any of you. And I’m so honored to be making music. We love you. And we love the opportunity to do what we love to do.”
The 56th Annual CMA Awards, hosted by Luke Bryan and Peyton Manning, took place on November 9th at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Other cast members included Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark, Cody Johnson, the Zac Brown Band, Lainey Wilson, Morgan Wallen, Thomas Rhett with Katy Perry, Patty Loveless and Chris Stapleton, Cole Swindell and Jo Dee Messina, and Kelsea Ballerini with Kelly Clarkson and Carly Pearce with a rousing “You’re Drunk, Go Home”.
The Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Alan Jackson with greatest hits performances by Dierks Bentley, Jon Pardi, Carrie Underwood, Lainey Wilson and a visibly moved Jackson himself. The biggest honor of the night, Entertainer of the Year, went to Luke Combs. For a full list of this year’s Country Music Association Awards winners, click here.
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