The 2022 CMA Awards were a mostly predictable affair with a few pleasant little surprises — and we’re so grateful for it. Between the maelstrom known as Ye, the upending of the already chaotic Twitter, and the high stakes of the midterms, there’s enough wacky shit afoot without having to endure some stupid drama unfolding on country music’s biggest night. Sorry Garth, but thank God for answered prayers.
With that in mind, the dream of the Nineties (and some even more distant decades) was alive in Nashville on Wednesday, as the 56th edition of the Country Music Association’s awards looked pointedly to the past. That meant old songs, retro styles, and faces from country music’s bygone eras popping up at various intervals. Hell, even Luke Bryan’s new co-host Peyton Manning is a throwback of sorts, a former NFL great who once called the plays at the University of Tennessee.
One of those faces loomed particularly large. Loretta Lynn died just one month ago and her loss received its own special segment to open the show. Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire, and Miranda Lambert — representing two generations of country stardom — honored Lynn’s work, giving a bandstand-style performance that could’ve happened on the Grand Ole Opry 50 years ago: Separately and then together, they sang Lynn gems “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Loving on Your Mind),” “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Rather than render the songs in a more modern style, the women kept them nearly identical to their original arrangements. Later in the show, Kentucky native Carly Pearce sang her original tune “Miss Loretta” in honor of Lynn with the help of Ricky Skaggs and Sonya Isaacs.
The loss of Alabama guitarist and founding member Jeff Cook, who died just the day before the CMAs, was also felt. In fact, when Old Dominion won their latest award for Vocal Group of the Year, singer Matthew Ramsey made a point to shout out Cook’s influence. “There’s nobody in this category that would be here without Alabama,” he said.
Looking to the past sometimes meant an aesthetic choice, like Female Vocalist of the Year Lainey Wilson’s ever-present bell bottoms and hippie-girl energy. Or Song of the Year winner Cody Johnson, looking like a red-bearded George Strait in his jacket and jeans but sounding a little more like Garth Brooks with his impassioned ballad “’Til You Can’t.” Kelsea Ballerini, Carly Pearce, and Kelly Clarkson provided a delightful, Nineties-style kiss-off with “You’re Drunk, Go Home.” Likewise, Zac Brown Band’s “Out in the Middle” mimicked the stomping rhythm of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishing in the Dark” and referenced Joe Diffie’s eternal “John Deere Green.” With the addition of new member Caroline Jones, Zac Brown Band now has enough members to fill an entire United States Supreme Court.
The everything-old-is-new-again vibe resonated across a number of performances. Early in the show, Ashley McBryde rounded up Brandy Clark, Caylee Hammack, and Pillbox Patti for a joyous rendition of the Everly Brothers’ classic “When Will I Be Loved,” which they recorded for McBryde’s Lindeville concept album. Later, Vocal Duo of the Year winners Brothers Osborne were joined by the War and Treaty on a rip-roaring version of the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)” that showcased the intense, fiery vocals of husband-and-wife duo Michael and Tanya Trotter.
The reverence for days gone by was such a through-line of this year’s show that when more modern-sounding songs were performed, they often sounded jarring. The trap-style hi-hats that introduced the Thomas Rhett and Katy Perry duet, as well as the programmed underpinnings of Morgan Wallen’s “You Proof,” were at odds with the steel guitar and mandolin of the Lynn tributes. It was a reminder that, in the year 2022, this is just how popular country music sounds. No shade intended, honest — just for this one night anyway, you couldn’t help but note the difference.
And it was hard not to get excited to see a few guests who haven’t been on the national broadcast in quite some time. Donelson, Tennessee, resident and 55-year Grand Ole Opry member Jeannie Seely got to present with Bryan and Manning. Nineties star Jo Dee Messina turned up to sing her hit “Heads Carolina, Tails California” in the middle of Cole Swindell’s homage, “She Had Me at Heads Carolina.”
The Nineties love continued with Alan Jackson, who was honored with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award and watched performances of his hits by Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood, Lainey Wilson, and Jon Pardi. They ran through a medley that included “Chattahoochee,” “Drive (For Daddy Gene),” “Remember When,” and “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.” Jackson got his own turn and sang “Don’t Rock the Jukebox.” “I’m still livin’ that honky-tonk dream, y’all” he said in his acceptance speech, hoisting a trophy aloft.
The best of all the Nineties returns, however, was Patty Loveless’ spotlight with Chris Stapleton. With Stapleton’s wife Morgane, they sang “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a mournful ballad that Loveless performs with the conviction of someone who knows what it’s like to feel trapped by a system that won’t cut you a break. Loveless mostly retired from recording and performing years ago, so it’s a thrill when she pops up every few years to remind everyone just how much of a boss she is, like country music’s version of Sade.
Of course, reverence for the past can sometimes be misguided. While the death of the controversial Jerry Lee Lewis needed to be acknowledged in some way, the hammy, pantomimed SNL skit of a performance by Elle King and the Black Keys was way off the mark. Likewise, Luke Bryan’s “Country On” felt like blatant pandering as he sang a bunch of two-dimensional, nostalgic lyrics about an incredibly complex, diverse nation. And after Jimmie Allen had to drop out due to illness at the last minute, it left the War and Treaty as the only Black performers to have a main-stage appearance. That was a letdown coming after a couple years of the CMA seemingly trying to do the right thing by featuring more diverse voices.
When it comes to radio-friendly songs that mine classic country, few are better and more prolific at it than Luke Combs. The vocalist won his second consecutive Entertainer of the Year award on Wednesday night, receiving it from two actors — Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain — who will be playing two departed country legends in the new mini-series George & Tammy. Combs noted the vibe shift in the room. “Let me tell you one more thing about tonight,” he said at the end of his acceptance speech. “Country’s sounded more country than it has in a long time tonight.”
To be fair, country sounds like something different at any given point in time, which is inevitable. But this year anyway, with new, retro-minded artists like Lainey Wilson and Cody Johnson collecting top prizes alongside Combs, country’s future sounds a lot like its past.