Jennifer Hudson Upstages Mainstream Country on the CMAs

Nashville, we have a problem.

When the ratings for the 2021 CMA Awards are published, they will be down (UPDATE: They were actually flat). This is the way that awards shows are going in the post pandemic world. It’s not necessarily the fault of the CMA Awards, though they certainly didn’t do themselves any favors Wednesday night, offering up one safe, and often generic performance after another, and no performances from or tributes to country legends as they almost always have done in the past.

(for a play by play of the night, check out the LIVE blog).

Miranda Lambert has been one of the long-time bright spots in the mainstream. But when she opened the show with a medley of old hits, you had a feeling the rest of the night was going to be flat. And it was, mostly. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some exceptions. Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde turned in a pretty memorable performance of their current single “Never Wanted to Be That Girl,” and then shared a second moment later when Carly Pearce somewhat surprisingly won Female Vocalist of the Year, and was so choked up, needed Ashley McBryde for assistance during her acceptance speech.

But far and away, the best performance of the night was turned in by an artist entirely outside of the country music fold when Jennifer Hudson took the stage to sing Willie Nelson’s “Night Life,” leading into “You Are My Sunshine,” with assistance from Chris Stapleton on guitar. Willie Nelson wrote “Night Life” in 1960, and sold the rights to it for $150 to Paul Buskirk to get milk money for his babies. It has since been recorded some 400 times, including by Aretha Franklin, who Jennifer Hudson portrayed in the 2021 film Respect.

Jennifer Hudson set the world on fire Wednesday night, and the only flaw in her performance was when the CMA producers were too quick cutting to commercial at the end of it. But as much as her performance helped save the 2021 CMA Awards, it also presents a problem. How is country music supposed to sell itself when it’s getting so upstaged by artists outside of the genre, and on its own awards shows?

The 2021 CMA Awards weren’t an exception either. Chris Stapleton was the biggest winner of the 2021 CMAs with four trophies (Single, Song, Album, Male Vocalist). But it was in 2015 when Stapleton enjoyed his big breakout on the CMA Awards stage, in large part due to being paired with Justin Timberlake. Also interesting to note that in the Stapleton/Timberlake moment, it was another old country song in “Tennessee Whiskey” that was the centerpiece. It was also a big moment at the 50th Annual CMA Awards five years ago that Beyoncé shared with the [Dixie] Chicks that was the centerpiece of that presentation.

As much as purists like to bellyache about how these non country performers have no business on the CMA Awards stage, in a pretty consistent fashion, if the CMAs or some other country awards show invites someone from outside the genre to participate, they’re going to upstage the mainstream country talent. It really helps illustrate and underscore just how lacking of world-beating talent major label country is at the moment. It also doesn’t help that the talent that is present is persuaded to make safe, predictable choices when it comes to the songs they perform, and how it’s presented.

But that doesn’t mean that country music doesn’t have talent. Let’s be honest, nobody may have bested Jennifer Hudson Wednesday night. But anyone who’s seen Billy Strings perform live overt the last year or two will solemnly swear that he moves mountains whenever he performs. It’s like nothing else they’ve ever seen. A honky tonk band from down in Texas called Mike and the Moonpies have been setting venues on fire from the dynamic nature of their live shows, and not just from whammy rock guitar and pyrotechnics like mainstream arena country acts, but while sitting right down in country music’s roots, and selling you on their virtues.

All it would take is an opportunity in front of a large, national audience, and singer songwriter Emily Scott Robinson would have been one of the names we all were trumpeting the day after the CMA Awards. If Jason Eady had performed his recent song “French Summer Sun,” it would have left America stunned, and the day before Veteran’s Day.

Award shows are infomercials for music genres and artists, and right now country music is not putting its best foot forward. It’s proving just how inferior the mainstream is to other genres, and on a consistent basis. Of course Mickey Guyton is being praised for her performance of “Love My Hair” with Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards, but the hair was as over-the-top as the sentimentality, almost trolling viewers to make fun of it so that they could turn around and claim victimhood. It was good to see Faith Fennidy, who was the young woman who inspired the song. But her message was lost in the hyperbolic presentation, and the Hallmark “Movie of the Week” approach.

The problem is that in 2021, anyone can pull up YouTube at their convenience and see the same stuff that transpired on the 2021 CMA Awards. In fact, they can see much better. For half a century, these country award shows could get away with only showing you what they wanted you to see, and you were mostly blind to your other options out there in the marketplace. Now they have to compete with a wide variety of entertainment options, and with artists that are wildly more entertaining.

The CMAs are not alone in their dilemma of how to survive in the long-term. But keeping with the status quo is certainly not an option, especially as the independent side of country music continues to gobble up market share. Opening up both the awards and performances to the entirety of country music’s talent pool may no longer just be the dream and desire of independent, traditional, and older country music fans who continuously feel under-represented by these shows. It may be the only option for these award shows to survive.

It’s awesome that Jennifer Hudson had a “moment” on the 2021 CMA Awards that we all soon won’t forget, and that she did it with country songs so fundamental to the genre that it illustrates how we’re all not as far apart as those political forces that would look to divide us would have us all believe. But if these country music institutions such as the CMA Awards are going to survive for another 50 years, it needs to be country artists who are making the headlines, turning in the marquee performances, stimulating the water cooler talk, and what everyone is searching for on YouTube the next day.

This story has been updated.

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