What last night’s CMAs say about the future of country music
“No matter what country you like, you’re welcome here tonight,” said Luke Bryan poignantly in his opening monologue hosting the 55th Annual Country Music Awards at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville last night. The statement slipped between the forced awards jokes and Bryan’s American Idol co-star judges Lionel Richie and Katy Perry snuck up on him for a cameo – but his importance probably echoed everyone who caught him. It was a statement of inclusiveness that rarely comes to the fore in the country music arena, especially not on its biggest night celebrating its stars who are typically conservative, white, straight, and Christian. But even though it seems forced and awkwardly behind the rest of the music industry, the effort ultimately put into dragging Big Country into the present was felt at last night’s ceremony.
The problem with the diversity of country music goes back to its beginnings. The early iterations of the genre in rural communities, the Appalachians, and the Deep South are often seen as inherently white, but like many other genres of music, country is actually rooted in African American instrumentation and lore. . The banjo alone descended from West African lutes made from calabashes, brought to the southern United States by slaves, and was eventually appropriated in black-faced minstrel performances which are the beginnings of often overlooked and not so humble of what was originally called “mountain music”. Prolific, meticulously detailed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns shines a light on the genre’s history by bleaching its roots in his 2019 4-hour PBS special Country music.
As the historical legacy of the ancestors and mothers of black countries is finally more widely recognized, in recent years the control of whites and the underlying currents of racism in the present country have begun to be taken into account forcibly. The year 2019 saw major booms in representation in the country following the controversial battle over whether Lil Nas X’s hit single “Old Town Road” could be considered a country. Burns said Fork at the time, “The fact that someone got into country music, it’s not the color that people assume country music people are, and just said, ‘I’m looking house “- that’s great.” But the jury of industry decision-makers has always seen Lil Nas X excluded from most of the nation’s top honors. CMA 2020 co-hosts Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker tried to cover up this uncomfortable setback by performing a duet of “In the Ghetto” by Elvis Presley at the ceremony honoring the author’s death- composer Mac Davis. But the performance at the time was widely seen as a cheap blow to optics that didn’t signify any significant advancement in the genre.
The insidiousness of the issue and how ingrained racism is in the demographics of some country listeners became even harder for the industry to hide last February, when country star Morgan Wallen was filmed in a state of disbelief. drunkenness using the n-word. After being shunned by most institutions in the industry, fans bought his album in such numbers that it was the best-selling album of 2021 across all genres throughout the summer. Mickey guyton tweeted at the time, “When I read comments that say ‘that’s not who we are’ I laugh because that’s exactly what country music is. I’ve witnessed it for 10 years. You should just read some vile comments thrown at me daily. It is a cold and hard truth to face, but it is the truth. The monoliths of the industry could not hide the realities that the incident inevitably made evident. ‘Like it or not, this year’s CMAs have made a concrete choice to change the discourse on who represents the country.
Last night’s CMAs saw two black artists nominated for the first time in the New Artist of the Year category, all categories combined, Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton; Jimmie Allen won the honor, the second black artist to do so after Darius Rucker in 2009. Mickey Guyton said of his nomination: “You know I get it, I appreciate the recognition and I’m grateful. There are so many girls, like me, who love all kinds of music, no matter what we look like. “Melinda Newman, editor-in-chief of Billboard spoke of the palpable progress.” We are seeing institutional change. We’re in a pivotal time for country music, and there’s a realization that country music hasn’t been so open to diversity, and there’s now a willingness to say that our past hasn’t. does not have to predict our future. Jimmie Allen speaking of his big win gave the historical context: “It started with Deford Bailey and Charley Pride. And then there’s Darius Rucker when he arrived in 2008. ”When Rucker rose to country fame, he was the first black artist to have a No.1 country song since Charley Pride in 1983.
Fortunately, the awards show also highlighted this progress on the main stage, and not just through the nominations. Jennifer Hudson made her CMA debut paying tribute to Aretha Franklin, who she just portrayed in the film The respect, alongside one of the nation’s few problem-free favorites, Chris Stapleton. The most impactful however were Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards performing “Love My Hair” from Guyton’s record. The trio were presented by young activist Faith Fennidy – whose discriminatory withdrawal from a Louisiana Catholic school because of her hairstyle inspired Guyton’s song. Fennity urged, “With your help, we can work together to ensure the next generation grows up in a world that is respectful and open for natural hair.”
To add to the progress, TJ Osborne of the famous duo Brothers Osborne, who bravely stepped out last February, was accompanied by boyfriend Abi Ventura at the ceremony. Osborne said Entertainment tonight, “I was like, ‘I hope that doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable, but that’s how I feel.’ I love this person and want to be open in all respects. With a bit of luck [it can] show people that they also don’t need to hide or change themselves in any way. The couple shared a kiss on camera as it was announced that the Osborne brothers had won the Vocal Duo of the Year award.
Where in years past CMAs were a cringe-worthy montage of cheesy jokes and white nonsense, with fake attempts at diversity and inclusion sometimes dotted around, last night’s ceremony saw attempts meaningful and enlightened to diversify the genre. And while Brittany and Jason Aldean continue to make crass anti-Biden t-shirts (which use the American flag in place of the “damn” job), and Carrie Underwood continues to recover the anti-vax from her husband sentiments supporting Aaron Rodgers, it’s exciting that the progress of last night’s awards show is what really makes the headlines today. The theme last night was Country Stars of the Future, and it shows.