The CMT Awards were NOT the CMA Awards, or Indicative of Country

Jelly Roll on the CMT Awards (photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for CMT)

The 2023 CMT Awards could very well go down in country music history as a significant moment, but it won’t be for the reasons the producers of the presentation or their proponents in the media hoped for, or will purport it to be. And no, we’re not just talking about the polarizing political moments from the show that had large swaths of the country music population seeing red. That is part of it for sure, but there are a host of reasons that the 2023 CMT Awards on Sunday, April 2nd was very much an outlier as opposed to an example of where country music, its fans, and its artists are at today.

First, it is worth re-emphasizing once again that the CMT Awards are not real. They have never been considered a legitimate country music awards show in the conventional sense, and there is certainly no reason to start now. Broadcasting the awards on CBS now because nobody goes to CMT anymore doesn’t change that fact. Awarding videos only via a fan-voted system from nominees selected by the show’s producers through executive fiat is not the proper way to vet the public and industry to come to something resembling a universal consensus behind who or what is “best” in the country genre in a given year.

Some people claim that because the CMT Awards are fan voted, this makes them more legitimate. Rapper turned country artist Jelly Roll who won three awards on the night made this claim himself. But fan-voted systems don’t award critical acclaim or even popularity. It’s just a measurement of how motivated the nominees are at mobilizing their fan bases to vote. Jelly Roll’s team was super motivated, and that in part is why he won. But make no mistake about it, if Morgan Wallen gave a shit about these awards and goaded his fan base into voting, he would have buried Jelly Roll and everyone else. But Morgan Wallen knows the CMT awards don’t matter, so he didn’t.

One of the moments that many people were most angry over was when co-host Kelsea Ballerini performed with four Drag Queens. But this is receiving far too much attention from both sides of the culture war divide.

Despite the characterizations of some that presenting Drag Queens on a country show was a brave and landmark moment that CMT should be applauded for, in truth, incorporating Drag Queens into your presentation is the safest and most conformist thing you can do in 2023—including, if not especially, if they otherwise don’t belong there. What is brave and bold is to not give into performative grandstanding, and instead allowing the music and the performances to speak for themselves, including allowing for the diverse population and influences that feed into the big tent of country to be represented.

Meanwhile, the puritanical pearl clutching over the Drag Queens is fueling the misconception that the only reason anyone would ever have any issue with the 2023 CMT Awards is homophobia or transphobia. Drag Queens have been around for decades, and yes, it was dumb to inject them as a non-sequitur into a country music presentation, unnecessarily polarizing it and tuning large swaths of the country music population out to CMT’s messages on diversity. They should have been smarter, but some country fans also need to be smarter, and not let this signaling by CMT draw them offside.

Nobody had a problem when Tyler Childers dressed up as Tammy Chiggers, or Kaitlin Butts had a Drag Queen star in one of her videos recently. Nobody flipped out when Ru Paul and a bunch of Drag Queens appeared on Family Feud in 2020. Now all of a sudden it’s the mother of all wedge issues thanks to a Tennessee law that has been stayed by the courts, and may never be implemented. Go look at the cover of Poison’s album Look What The Cat Dragged In and appreciate that was 37 years ago. This is nothing new.

The main reason the 2023 CMT Awards were not representative of country music is because there just wasn’t that much country music on the presentation at a time when even mainstream country is embracing an unprecedented level of country roots and twang in a way that is unparalleled in the last 25 years. What we are experiencing right now is nearing the neotraditional movement of the mid 80s and early 90s, while 90s country continues to be one of the hottest trends across the country music landscape.

But on the 2023 CMT Awards, you didn’t see 90s country. What you saw was 90s pop. Gwen Stefani had one of the presentation’s marquee performance slots singing No Doubt’s 90s hit “I’m Just A Girl.” Carly Pearce came in about half way to sing along, but she was in a subordinate role to Stefani. When it came time to mark 10 years of CMT’s “Next Women of Country” initiative, they decided the best way to tribute the women of country was to book 90s pop star Alanis Morissette to sing her song “You Oughta Know” while once again a host of “country” women played second fiddle in the performance.

Why not instead toast a country woman from the 90s since they’re so hot right now? How about Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, or the recently Country Music Hall of Fame-inducted Patty Loveless? And don’t tell me it’s because there weren’t any female empowerment anthems that fit the bill. Mary Chapin Carpenter has two of them herself: “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and “Opening Act”—the latter of which Carpenter performed on the CMA Awards in 1990.

You couple all of this with The Black Crowes performing “She Talks To Angels” with Hootie and the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker and it was an all out 90s-themed assault, just with little of it tying into country music. And this speaks nothing about the strange appearance by Megan Thee Stallion, Wynonna and Ashley McBryde singing Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” for a reason we still haven’t received an answer for, and then the non-country performances from the supposed “country” artists like hosts Kelsea Ballerini and Kane Brown.

The 2023 CMT Awards were also just plain bad. Cody Johnson did well, but it almost felt like an embarrassment that he had signed up to be there. The Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute at the very end was pretty badass, but again, it didn’t really represent either today’s country music, or country music from the past. It was bolstered by having Warren Haynes, Slash, and Billy Gibbons all on stage together as opposed to country performers.

When Billboard ran down it’s 8 Best Moments from the CMTs, all but #8 (Carrie Underwood) included performers or songs not native to country music. That’s a problem for a country presentation when it’s so subordinated to pop and rock, while the top artists in country—namely Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs, Zach Bryan, Chris Stapleton, Bailey Zimmerman—stalwarts like Miranda Lambert, and country legends that usually make appearances on these shows, were nowhere to be found. And no, we’re not counting Wynonna singing Foreigner.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest issues with the 2023 CMT Awards is how many people thought it was the Country Music Association’s awards, or CMAs. Scouring through the reams of negative comments about the show, you saw this misconception come up over and over, which is understandable with all the country award shows now and the alphabet soup they create. Even more troubling were people or even outlets like The Babylon Bee (yes, we all know it’s not real, that’s not the point) taking the CMTs as being representative of country music in 2023 overall. The brand damage that the 2023 CMT Awards did for the entire country music industry was significant, and potentially, irreparable.

Contrast that compared to how we felt about the 2022 CMA Awards that happened in November—an actual, long-established country music awards show. All of the talk coming out of that presentation was just how country so many of the performances were, how happy we were for all the winners, and how overall, it was a great year in a greater trend of seeing the CMAs improving ever since 2015 when Chris Stapleton shocked the world by virtually sweeping the awards, and singing “Tennessee Whiskey” with Justin Timberlake.

Country awards shows have always had a pop star or two stop by to help broaden the viewing audience, but nothing like what the CMTs did. On the 2022 CMA Awards, Carly Pearce performed with another artist similar to the CMTs, but it was with Ricky Skaggs and Sonya Isaacs paying tribute to Loretta Lynn with the song “Dear Miss Loretta.” Unlike on the CMTs, Patty Loveless did appear on the CMAs, and sang the classic country song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” The performance was so divine, some believe it’s what catapulted Patty over big commercial stars like Kenny Chesney and Shania Twin to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame before them.

When Luke Combs won the 2022 CMA Entertainer of the Year award at the end of the CMA presentation in November, he stood at the podium and said, “This is my 5th or 6th year being at this awards show, and country sounded more country than it has in a long time, and I think we all wanted that.” And he was right. This is what the fans of country music wanted, and even the most cynical of traditional country fans who’ve been turned off by the industry over the last 15+ years were forced to admit that things were at least moving in the right direction.

Some are trying to proclaim the success of the CMT Awards by citing a 5% rise in ratings year over year, but part of this was by appealing to a decidedly non-country audience. Meanwhile, the CMA Awards saw a ratings spike of 16% while doubling down on their country roots, and saw a bigger overall audience compared to the CMTs.

Despite the meaningless of the awards, it’s pretty indisputable that Jelly Roll was still the big winner of the night, if only in the name recognition department. He is clearly a rising star in the country genre, and one that frankly outclassed many of the other performers and even speakers of the night, putting on a powerful Gospel-style performance.

But even Jelly Roll is a symbol of mainstream country moving in a more country direction. As Saving Country Music reported in March, Jelly Roll is part of a deepening trend of country beating back hip-hop influences in the genre. Instead of Jelly Roll leaning into his rap roots, he’s abandoning them to become more country, and a more substantive artist.

Rapper turned traditional country artist Ernest is another example of this trend. And that’s on top of true country artists like Cody Jonson, Lainey Wilson, Jon Pardi, and others finding greater traction. Traditional country artist Jake Worthington just released one of the most traditional country albums you can find via major label Big Loud—the same label as Morgan Wallen, who despite his own hip-hop influences, actually has a big handful of straight up traditional country songs on his new album One Thing A At Time.

This is the trend in country music, not Kelsea Ballerini, not Drag Queens, or anything of the sort. Of course there are still pop stars in country, and hip-hop influences in the mainstream of the genre, but everything is trending away from that, despite the CMT Awards attempting to wishcast country music as being a big tent that apparently includes 90s pop stars, and anything else anyone ever would want to characterize as country, including for ulterior political purposes under the false notion that if you just expose audiences to something, they’ll immediately become more open and welcoming to it.

Even the CMT “winners” symbolize this shift toward country’s roots: Cody Johnson, Lainey Wilson, Jelly Roll, and Megan Moroney are some of the most country acts in the mainstream right now. It was the presentation and performances on the CMT Awards that were out-of step.

What was also out-of-step with the country music population was the way the CMT Awards centered their virtue signaling about diversity in country music with very little substance behind it. Black trio Chapel Hart and LGBT artist Lily Rose were featured, but only for 30 seconds snippets on the insulting “Ram Trucks” stage before the feed cut to commercial. Though the CMTs showered with compliments for the amount of diversity on the show, they didn’t really have any major moments of “diversity” barring the Drag Queens that didn’t have anything to do with country music.

One of the big moments was supposed to be Shania Twain receiving CMT’s “Equal Play Award”—a dubious honor whose inaugural recipient was Jennifer Nettles, who was once a party to kicking Kristen Hall out of Sugarland allegedly because Kristen was a lesbian. But instead of having another country woman or an LGBT artist present the award to Shania, they had Megan Thee Stallion do the honors, once again centering attention on an artist outside of the country genre.

Speaking of being outside of the country genre, this same assessment can also be brought to Shania Twain. She did little to actually diversify country music during her era, while she also set the precedent for women to use the country genre as a stepping stone to pop—a path Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, and others have taken subsequently that has contributed to country music’s gender imbalance, not addressed it. Instead of showcasing Shania Twain whose new album Queen of Me is exclusively pop, mainstream women like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert who’ve stood their ground through the adversity of the country industry and refused to pander to crossover markets are the ones who should be celebrated.

The CMT Awards symbolized the perfect corporate signaling approach to diversity: talk a big game, but do little or nothing of meaning. The presentation was orchestrated by people whose window into the world is Twitter, for people whose window in the world is Twitter. I’m sure CMT received plenty of positive feedback from peers about how perfect the awards show was. But meanwhile in the real world, the sentiment was so overwhelmingly negative, it bled over and unfairly implicated the entire country music genre.

So yes, be perturbed by the 2023 CMT Awards if you want. You have every right to be, and for a host of reasons. But don’t get them mixed up with the CMAs, or country music overall. Things are improving in country music, and across the board. Don’t let country music’s 3rd tier pop country infomercial throw you off. This is the moment we need to be leaning into re-establishing country music’s roots in the mainstream, and doing what we can to backstop those roots to make sure we never backslide into something resembling the Bro-County era or whatever the CMT Awards were ever again.

© 2024 Saving Country Music