Make new friends but keeping the old is a theme of the 55th CMA Awards, which will air live from Nashville at 7 p.m. Wednesday on ABC.
“It’s exciting we have the ability within our format to love on our icons and then expand to the new generation,” says Chief Executive Officer of the Country Music Association Sarah Trahern.
Hosted by Luke Bryan, this year’s awards show offers a more balanced line-up of age, style, race and gender than in some previous years. Eric Church and Chris Stapleton are the top nominees at five nods each – including mentions in Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year, Single of the Year, Song of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year. However, a host of women are right on their heels. Gabby Barrett has four nominations while Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde and Maren Morris have three nods and Lambert and Carrie Underwood are back in the Entertainer of the Year category.
First-time nominees include Jordan Davis, Ryan Hurd and Mickey Guyton, who will perform on the show with Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards, who only moved to Nashville to try country music earlier this year.
“This is broader diversity than we’ve ever had in nominations, and I think that trend will continue,” Trahern says. “Think about the performance we’re doing with Mickey, Brittney and Madeline. My hope is that they’re going to be back. This is not a one-and-done. Gabby has so many nominations. The fact that Carly (Pearce) is in Album, and the business is getting a little more balanced. That’s a good thing for all of us.”
When 55th CMA Awards executive producer Robert Deaton heard Guyton’s “Love My Hair,” he said he was “floored,” and the idea for the collaborative performance grew from there.
Deaton is also excited for audiences to see Pearce and Ashley McBryde sing together as well as Brothers Osborne’s impactful performance and Jennifer Hudson.
“I love what is happened in country music this past year,” he said. “I love the Carly and Ashley song because it’s Reba and Linda Davis all over again. I love the moment with Brothers Osborne and what that’s going to mean. The courage of T.J. makes me proud of the genre.”
Hudson is the show’s lone announced out-of-genre musical guest. Hudson stars in the acclaimed Aretha Franklin musical drama “Respect,” and Deaton predicts she will fit well in the program. He says he and Franklin tried to plan her appearance on the CMA Awards, but she died before they got the chance to make it happen. Deaton saw Hudson at a screening of “Respect,” and the chance meeting revitalized the idea of honoring Franklin on the CMA Awards.
“I knew Aretha’s love of it, but I didn’t realize some of these country songs that she had cut,” Deaton said. “I told Jennifer this would be an awesome time with the movie … to really explore and do a tribute.”
Even with Deaton’s inclusive, music-forward approach, the circumstances of 2021 still made the 55th CMA Awards an atypical show to produce. T.J. Osborne made history in February when he came out at the peak of his career. The same day, Morgan Wallen was caught on camera using a racial slur. Both acts are nominated for Album of the Year. Brothers Osborne has a highly coveted performance slot. Wallen isn’t allowed to come to the show.
Members of the Board of Directors decided that while they weren’t ready to move on from Wallen’s hurtful rhetoric, ignoring his body of work and punishing the other associated creators wasn’t fair.
“I feel like we made the decision because we didn’t want the distraction of having him there,” Trahern said, “or the sense that the community was ready to move on.”
The pandemic added another unpredictable level of chaos. While COVID-19 numbers in Nashville are finally on the decline, its presence impacted nearly every aspect of the show. Ramifications range from losing the camaraderie of frequent, in-person creative brainstorms and planning sessions to navigating the ethics and legalities of safety measures and dealing with supply chain disruptions. Deaton sometimes couldn’t get the workers or supplies needed to build a set and had to lean on screens more heavily than planned.
“We just keep, put our heads down, and we keep moving forward,” Deaton said.
Amid the challenges, Trahern said, the music remains the focus, and reuniting the country community is a close second.
“The music is still what I’m the most excited about,” she says. “This genre is about really touching music and personal, fun stories. I think that’s the heart of what’s going to come out of the show. I feel like Wednesday will be a turning point to be a little bit more back to whatever the new normal is going to become.”
“When you can grab onto something that’s normal, that feels like it used to, that’s the things that you kind of hold onto and treasure right now,” Deaton added. “This does feel like we’re a bit of normalcy, which is nice.”