For its annual Artists of the Year awards, Country Music Television shined its spotlight solely on women this year, and the performances Wednesday night of the seven recipients — including Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini — left no one questioning the level of talent today among women in country music.
In fact, after an evening packed with so many astonishing performances, only one question remained: Why aren’t more women on country radio?
No doubt there’s a “woman problem” on radio’s airwaves, and CMT chose to boldly showcase the antidote in its live network broadcast from Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
As Underwood said when she accepted her award at the end of the evening, “I definitely want to say to all of the incredible, amazing, talented women that have been on this stage tonight, you are not here because you are women. You are here because you are dang good.”
But as stirring as the performances were, the show turned out to be as much a protest and an impatient plea for parity as it was a celebration of talent.
“I just want to say to CMT, thank you for being the one to change the conversation into an action tonight,” Ballerini said in her acceptance.
When Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild, a recipient along with bandmate Kimberly Schlapman, accepted her award, she whipped out her cell phone. “It looks rude,” she told the audience, “but it’s not gonna be.”
She then read off the names of more than 30 young female recording artists, most of whom have yet to crack country’s charts. Many were there, sitting in silent testimony on either side of the stage. Some were wiping away tears as Fairchild and Schlapman stopped to shake a few of their hands when the two exited the stage.
Videotaped statements by the recipients, featured at one interlude during the evening, took direct aim at radio broadcasters.
“I don’t know why they’re not playing women on country radio,” Lambert said.
“They’re saying women don’t want to hear women,” Morris added. “I will have to call BS on that one, because I grew up listening to women. That’s why I’m here today.”
“It’s time,” Ballerini chimed in, waving an imaginary wand. “Trend change.”
Even the performances proved subversive at times. In her medley of hits by some of country’s female greats, Underwood put an unmistakably sly spin on Tammy Wynette’s tradition-bound “Stand By Your Man,” emphasizing the word “just” in the lyric: “After all, he’s just a man.”
Morris and folk-rocker Brandi Carlile torched their way through “Natural Woman” in tribute to the late Aretha Franklin, but by singing it to each other, they turned Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s sensual lyrics into a testimony to the power of sisterhood.
Don’t think the message of the evening didn’t hit home, particularly to the men who graced the stage. All were there to support the women in either spoken praise or song.
Lady A’s Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood were left to stand in wonder as their bandmate Hillary Scott soared with pop artist Tori Kelly, showcasing the Lady A hit “American Honey” and Kelly’s blockbuster “Never Alone.” Kelly’s co-writer, gospel artist Kirk Franklin, joined the two women at the end to segue into a euphoric “Oh Happy Day.”
“I really hope Hillary doesn’t start a group called Lady and Lady because that was phenomenal,” Charles Kelley said before he and Haywood presented Scott with her award. “We’re so blessed to be in this band with you. We love you so much. I mean, that was just proof right there. You’re a bad ass.”
Little Big Town’s Jimi Westbrook and Philip Sweet expressed similar awe after Fairchild and Schlapman multiplied their vocal might with Motown powerhouse Gladys Knight. Together, the three women found the resilience in two classic songs of desperation, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
“Thanks to these two incredible women, Kimberly and Jimi’s wife, Karen, we’ve been able to make our living together making music,” Sweet said in his introduction, acknowledging the fact that Schlapman and Fairchild were the founders of the group.
“I count it a blessing that we get to share the stage every night and make music with these two intelligent, strong, beautiful women,” Westbrook added.
Ballerini and her duet partner, 27-time Grammy winner Alison Krauss, exerted their own power over Krauss’ classic “Ghost in This House,” their voices blending in haunting harmony.
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In her award acceptance, Ballerini acknowledged the support she’s received from other women as she’s launched her career, from Shania Twain and Taylor Swift to Reba McEntire and “Alison-freaking-Krauss.”
“I think what I’ve learned from that is how important it is to lift each other up, to support each other, and to share our stage, no matter how big or how small it is,” Ballerini said.
Sadly, the only disappointment of the evening was the absence of country legend Loretta Lynn, who received the CMT Artist of a Lifetime award. The 86-year-old icon remains in fragile health after suffering a stroke and fracturing a hip over the last 18 months, but the strength of her career still towered over the evening.
“She blazed the trail and showed us all how it’s done,” lifelong fan Miranda Lambert said in her introduction to the Lynn musical tribute, which featured Martina McBride, Sheryl Crow and Dierks Bentley. “She showed us how to pursue our dreams and speak our minds.”
It was fitting that Sissy Spacek, who earned a best-actress Oscar portraying Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” stood in for her friend and idol to accept the award.
“I loved playing Loretta in Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Spacek said. “I just loved being her. I had the band. I had the bus. I had the clothes. But I think we can all agree that there’s only one Loretta Lynn.”
Spacek said she had visited Lynn earlier in the day “and she was so excited about this award.”
“From the moment we met, she’s been my cheerleader” — an emotional Spacek paused to collect herself — “my sister, my best friend, and it’s still like that almost 40 years later. It’s my honor to accept her award.”
Those words lifted the audience to their feet for a sustained ovation, but Spacek wasn’t done yet.
“Well done, Loretta, well done,” she added, before returning to the theme of the evening: “I think Loretta said it best, ‘It’s about dadgum time we recognized women.’”