The 2023 CMA Awards were the most pedestrian and nondescript awards in many years, and at the same time, perhaps the most significant CMA awards in nearly a decade or more. Many of the performances may have not mattered, but the awards themselves did, at least when it came to the biggest trophies. History was made, ceilings were broken, and a new Queen of country music was crowned.
When it comes to the performances that transpired over the night, it was one slow and sentimental ballad after another. When Kelsea Ballerini turns in one of the top performances (and she did), that speaks to how soft and sedate everything was. Even when Bro-Country was the dominant influence at the CMAs, and spark showers and explosions bolstered the performances, at least it raised a pulse, even if it was from a visceral, bile-inducing reaction.
Even the more up-tempo moments of the 2023 CMAs had little to offer. Post Malone’s appearance was arguably the most anticipated moment of the night, especially after the CMAs touted it as a “classic country medley.” But those classic country songs turned out to be the silly selections from Joe Diffie’s catalog, a.k.a. “John Deere Green” and “Pickup Man.” Then with with Morgan Wallen and Hardy braying horrifically out-of-tune to them, it exposed just how poorly country music’s “top” talent measures up to a hip-hop/pop star like Post Malone, who did the best with a bad situation.
Lainey Wilson sang her current single “Wildflowers and Wild Horses” in the most raucous and up-tempo moment of the night. There was even a spark shower emanating from a barbed wire halo. But nobody will remember that performance in a week. What they will remember is the night Lainey Wilson broke down the barriers for the women of country music in a very big way.
Along with winning Album of the Year for Bell Bottom Country and Female Vocalist of the Year—not to mention Vocal Event of the Year and Video of the Year for her “wait in the truck” collaboration with Hardy—Lainey Wilson is now the current reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year. It’s the genre’s biggest trophy.
Lainey Wilson is the first woman in twelve years to win Entertainer of the Year. She’s only the 2nd woman to win it since 2000 (Taylor Swift won it twice). Major, long-standing women in country music like Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood don’t have a CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy to their name. Neither does Morgan Wallen, at least for another year.
How in the world could Lainey Wilson pull off such a thing?
For many years the Entertainer of the Year award has been considered mostly a touring award. When George Strait shocked everyone and won it in 2013 coinciding with his “final” tour despite no longer being played on the radio or being relevant in mainstream country music in any meaningful way, it was his touring purse that was touted as the reason. This is also how Garth Brooks walked away with Entertainer of the Year in 2016, 2017, and 2019.
Lainey Wilson has no significant tour purse to tout. At least not yet. She just recently announced an amphitheater/arena tour for 2024 called “Country’s Cool Again,” and many wondered at that time if she could fill those venues. She probably just made that significantly easier now. But earlier this year she was playing large clubs and opening slots. Lainey Wilson didn’t win this from touring.
But there is also no hard and fast rule that Entertainer of the Year is solely a touring award. This was simply the justification to give it to George Strait upon his retirement. This action then codified the award as a touring trophy ever since in a way that has weighted it differently than the original intent of the achievement. Ideally, Entertainer of the Year would take into consideration the entirety of an artist’s career.
When you look at it from that perspective, Lainey Wilson is one of the hottest acts in country music, and most certainly the most significant woman. Her last single “Watermelon Moonshine” just spent three weeks at #1, which is unprecedented for a woman, and a rarity from anyone. In fact, she’s had numerous successful singles lately, including “Heart Like a Truck,” “Never Say Never” with Cole Swindell, and the now 2-time CMA-winning “wait in the truck” with Hardy.
Lainey Wilson had more CMA nominations than anyone else in 2023 with nine. That sure sounds like Entertainer of the Year-caliber consideration in itself. She also won Album of the Year, which means whatever commercial success she does have also comes with critical acclaim. But Lainey Wilson probably didn’t win Entertainer of the Year from her singles and radio performance, or the other awards she won or was nominated for either.
Taking a purely analytical assessment of the situation, Lainey’s win likely had something to do with votes splitting multiple different ways due to a loaded field of nominees this year that also included Morgan Wallen, Chris Stapleton, Carrie Underwood, and Luke Combs. Lainey emerged as a dark horse, and earned a plurality of the votes.
But philosophically, there is likely a much deeper reason why more CMA voters pulled the lever for Lainey Wilson in 2023 than for anyone else. That reason is Maren Morris.
The major narrative coming out of the media for the last few months has been how Maren Morris has supposedly been so mistreated by country music as a woman that she was forced to leave. Morris released her EP The Bridge on September 15th, followed by a barrage of coverage in the media, including a scathing assessment of country music by Morris in the Los Angeles Times where she said she’d like to “burn [country] to the ground.”
This was the biggest story in country music on October 2nd when the final CMA Awards ballots were sent out. The night before the 2023 CMA Awards, Morris was on The Tonight Show with Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer singing her song “The Tree,” which is about the supposed cultural rot at the roots of country music. It coincides with her other song “Get The Hell Out Of Here,” which is also about burning down country music on her way out the door.
“The rot at the roots is the root of the problem,” Morris sings. Meanwhile, Lainey Wilson symbolizes the antithesis of the Maren Morris assessment of country music. It’s not because Wilson is subservient or “knows her place” as a woman in country music. She spoke in depth in her acceptance speeches about the importance of being a woman in country music. The difference is that Lainey Wilson is actually country.
Instead of singing about how she wants to burn country music to the ground, Lainey Wilson has said and signaled over and over her undying loyalty to the genre, including her dedication to the work of breaking down barriers for her fellow women, like she did Wednesday night at the CMA Awards with her wins. The CMA and country music sent a message with Lainey’s Entertainer of the Year win that yes, country music does support women, if those women are country, and support country music back.
All the Morgan Wallen fans bellyaching that he didn’t win Entertainer of the Year or anything else despite being the most commercially successful artist in music at the moment, get over it. It’s due to his own stupid mouth. And though Wallen deserves forgiveness, that forgiveness often takes time. Morgan Wallen will get his. Luke Combs already got his last year, and will likely get more in the future. Chris Stapleton already got Entertainer of the Year from the ACM, and so did Carrie Underwood.
But still, who you really feel bad for in this situation is Carrie Underwood, and especially Miranda Lambert. For the last dozen years they had to put up with all the bullshit in country music during the Bro-Country era, working twice as hard as their male counterparts, only to get shut out of Entertainer of the Year contention. And unlike Wallen, Combs, and Stapleton, they may never get another chance. Then here comes Lainey Wilson only a year removed from winning New Artist of the Year, and walks away with the big prize.
But none of this is Lainey Wilson’s fault. Dig into her history, including the nearly decade she spent paying dues before she got signed and started to blow up, hustling the whole time to build a career in an era when it was nearly impossible for women. Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert at least started out before the Bro-Country wave, not in the midst of it.
This win by Lainey Wilson is for ALL country women. Lainey Wilson said as much in her speech accepting Female Vocalist of the Year. That is how country fans should look at it, because that’s how the CMA voters saw it. It’s also a win for all artists that keep it country. Though Lainey Wilson may still not be country enough for some, she was the most country contender for the 2023 CMA Entertainer of the Year.
And let’s also not overlook the other landmark achievement of the 2023 CMA Awards, which was the win by Tracy Chapman for Song of the Year via “Fast Car” that was given new life by Luke Combs. It was super classy that Combs and nobody else came up to accept the award for the reclusive Chapman. That was her moment, and nobody elses. And meanwhile, another barrier is broken down, this one by a Black woman winning a CMA Award.
Some people are just as incensed that a 35-year-old folk pop song won a CMA in 2023 as they are with Lainey Wilson’s win for Entertainer of the Year. The same thing happened when Johnny Cash won Song of the Year for Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in 1970. They said it wasn’t country. It was a singer/songwriter song. “Fast Car” was an incomparably successful track from a commercial standpoint that was also critically-acclaimed. It may not be your favorite, but it’s hard to say it was not deserved, or earned, regardless of who the writer was.
On the 2023 CMA Awards, country music gave into its better angels. Nonetheless, there will be many who will refuse to give the CMAs or country music any credit for what happened because Morgan Wallen was even allowed in the building, and will call the accolades for Lainey Wilson and Tracy Chapman too little too late. Many of these voices have perverse incentives to keep country music regressive, because it helps them push their media brands, their standing in Academia, and their X/Twitter presence.
Women have always been at the very roots of the country music genre, from The Carter Sisters on down, despite the characterizations of Maren Morris and others who skew the history of country to conflate it with their agenda-driven narratives, or the recent history of country music that diminished women in the mainstream as Bro-Country dominated.
But we’ve all moved on now. Maren Morris has left the genre, and soon the interlopers and larpers who thought it was fashionable to attempt to co-opt country to assert pet political causes will be gone too. Those left will be the people with a love of country music deeply embedded in their heart who would never give up on the music, will never give in to the outside pressures put on the genre, will fight for country music, including making sure it’s a place where everyone can succeed, just like they did at the 2023 CMA Awards.
The future of country music is bright. Lainey Wilson didn’t win Entertainer of the Year for the present. She won it for the future. And if that future involves Lainey Wilson, it will be filled with country music that is actually country.