CMA Awards Rewind: Decade Three

To celebrate the upcoming 50th Annual CMA Awards, we’re taking a look back at the iconic awards show through the years.

Written by Chuck Dauphin
CMA Awards Rewind: Decade Three
Photo via YouTube

We’re counting down to the 50th Annual CMA Awards with a look back at each decade of the iconic awards show. This week, we dive into the third decade of the show…

The 1987 CMA Awards could be basically summed up in one name – Randy Travis. The North Carolina native, who broke onto the scene the year before, smashed down the doors of Country Music stardom with Always and Forever, his sophomore album. The singer walked away with Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and Single of the Year for “Forever and Ever, Amen,” which also netted Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz their second straight win in the Song of the Year category with a Travis song.

Travis wasn’t the only winner of the night, however. Reba McEntire claimed her fourth straight win in the Female Vocalist category, while newcomer Holly Dunn walked away with the Horizon Award. Husband and wife Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White won the Vocal Duo of the Year, and correcting what many in the industry thought to be an oversight, Hank Williams, Jr. – after almost twenty-five years on the charts – took home the big prize of the evening, Entertainer of the Year.

When you have three female vocalists with the talent of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, it’s a relative no-brainer that an award would come from such a collaboration. In 1987, the three ladies released the album Trio, which sold four million copies, and earned them the Vocal Event of the Year trophy. Speaking of Female Vocalists, 46 -year old newcomer K.T. Oslin, who shattered the unofficial “Age Rule” of Country Music dethroned Reba McEntire as Female Vocalist of the Year. She also netted the Song of the Year prize for the classic “80’s Ladies.” Chet Atkins won his ninth – and final – Musician of the Year trophy for his work on Ronnie Milsap’s Heart and Soul album, and “Bocephus,” aka, Hank Williams, Jr., won Album of the Year for Born To Boogie, and repeated as the winner of the Entertainer of the Year award. But, perhaps the most enjoyable moment of the night came when Johnny Cash inducted Loretta Lynn into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

1989 might very well have been one of the most traditional-sounding CMA Awards in a while. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band won Album of the Year for their seminal Will The Circle Be Unbroken 2 disc. The group was joined on stage by many of the artists who performed on the disc, such as John Hiatt and Roy Acuff. Ricky Van Shelton knocked Randy Travis off as the Male Vocalist winner, while Kathy Mattea won for Female Vocalist. Western Swing also played a huge role in the evening, with Hank Thompson entering the Hall of Fame, Johnny Gimble – one of the great fiddlers to hail from Texas – won for Musician of the Year, and George Strait returned to the winners’ podium to take home the Entertainer of the Year award. But, the musical moment that seemed to leave the biggest lasting impact was Dolly Parton’s soaring version of the Inspirational classic “He’s Alive.”

George Strait repeated as Entertainer of the Year in 1990 and Clint Black won for Male Vocalist of the Year, but there was a storm brewing out of Oklahoma on the 24th Annual CMA Awards. His name was Garth Brooks. Having been turned down by every label in town, the singer returned to his home state, only to return to give it another shot. The second time was the charm, and by the fall of 1990, he was the biggest name in Country Music, winning the Horizon Award trophy, as well as Video of the Year for his haunting “The Dance.” Another multiple winner was Mercury recording artists The Kentucky Headhunters, who won Vocal Group of the Year, and Album of the Year for Pickin’ On Nashville – which cost only $4,000 to make. But, perhaps the most remembered moment of the night belonged to relative newcomer Mary Chapin Carpenter, who hit a home run with her witty “Opening Act.”

There was no doubting who would dominate the 1991 CMA Awards, as Garth Brooks was everywhere. His just-released Ropin’ The Wind had become the first Country album to top the Billboard 200 Album charts. The only question was – How many would he win? He took home four prizes on the night, Video of the Year, for his controversial “The Thunder Rolls” clip, Single of the Year for “Friends In Low Places,” Album of the Year for No Fences, and Entertainer of the Year. There were other moments to remember, including the presence of President George H.W. Bush in the audience. Vince Gill won his first of five Male Vocalist trophies, and Tanya Tucker – after almost twenty years on the scene – was finally recognized as Female Vocalist of the Year. As it turned out, presenters Roy Rogers and Clint Black had to accept for her, as she was in the hospital giving birth. Perhaps the musical highlight of the night was “Restless,” the song that won Vocal Event of the Year for Musician of the Year Mark O’Connor and the New Nashville Cats, which consisted of Gill, Ricky Skaggs, and Steve Wariner.

Garth Brooks might have repeated as Entertainer of the Year in 1992, but he didn’t have the song that pushed Americans into a frenzy. At the beginning of the year, nobody knew the name Billy Ray Cyrus. But, that would change in the summer of 1992 with his debut single, “Achy Breaky Heart.” The Country-dance tune would help to make him a superstar, topping the Country singles chart for five straight weeks – and crossing over to the top five on the Billboard Hot 100. Cyrus won the Single of the Year prize for the song that never seemed to leave the airwaves that year. There were several first-time winners in 1992, including Brooks & Dunn for Vocal Duo, Diamond Rio for Vocal Group, and Alan Jackson for Video of the Year. It was also the first time for Vince Gill to co-host the show, a job he would have until 2003. The emotional highlight of the night proved to be the induction of George Jones into the Country Music Hall of Fame by Randy Travis, who snuck up on his hero during his performance.

Vince Gill might have tied Johnny Cash’s record of five CMA wins in one night in 1993, Alan Jackson might have won the Video and Single of the Year for “Chattahoochee,” and Willie Nelson might have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame…..but the moment that fans will always remember from 1993 is the performance of “Does He Love You” by Reba McEntire and Linda Davis. McEntire – who once was the consummate cowgirl with her look – donned the famous red dress, which seems conservative now – but in 1993, that was another story! Check it out for yourself!

The 28th Annual CMA Awards served to usher in some new winners to the history books. Pam Tillis won her first Female Vocalist of the Year prize, while John Michael Montgomery won the Horizon Award. Vince Gill claimed his fourth Male Vocalist honor, and repeated as Entertainer of the Year, and Merle Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The biggest moments of the show turned out to be due to tribute records – Common Thread: The Songs Of The Eagles won for Album of the Year, and Rhythm, Country, and Blues – an MCA release that brought together Conway Twitty – in his final session, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, George Jones, and Reba McEntire (among others) was celebrated with a raucous performance of “Somethin’ Else” from Little Richard and Tanya Tucker.

Shania Twain had released a self-titled album in 1993 on Mercury, but didn’t see any success. Her sophomore album, The Woman In Me, did just a little bit better – becoming one of the best-selling albums by a Female Vocalist in Country Music, selling over ten million copies. One of the reasons for that sales spike was the sensual nature of her performances, as evidenced by her appearance on the 1995 CMA Awards, where the singer can be seen being flirtatious with artists such as Johnny Cash, Tim McGraw, and Marty Stuart. Her awards would come later, but needless to say….she stole the show!

Traditional-sounding female performers fared well on the telecast, with Patty Loveless notching her second CMA win for Album of the Year, and Bluegrass Queen Alison Krauss having the night of her career, winning for Female Vocalist, Vocal Event (with Shenandoah), the Horizon Award, and Single Record of the Year for her cover of Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All.” Between Twain’s spark and Krauss’s shine, it was almost overshadowed that Alan Jackson won his first trophy as Entertainer of the Year.

Patty Loveless claimed her first win as Female Vocalist of the Year in 1996, but most of the 30th Annual CMA Awards featured repeat winners. George Strait – absent from the winners’ circle at the Awards since 1990 – added a trio of trophies to his mantle, Single Record of the Year for “Check Yes Or No,” Album of the Year for Blue Clear Sky, and Male Vocalist of the Year – a prize he hadn’t won since in a decade. Though no longer the Male Vocalist winner, Vince Gill put a couple more awards in his collection, winning Vocal Event with Dolly Parton, and Song of the Year for his emotional “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” written in honor of his late brother and Keith Whitley. Also adding two more wins to their resume were Brooks and Dunn, for Vocal Duo of the Year and Entertainer of the Year – the first duo to do so. And, in one of the show’s most poignant moments, Kris Kristofferson introduced Ray Price as one of three new inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In addressing the crowd, Price had the best line of the night, saying of his long-awaited induction – “I was beginning to feel like Susan Lucci,” in reference to the Soap Opera actress’s long wait for a Daytime Emmy Award.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the years 1997-2006, where we will meet up with the Dixie Chicks, watch as Garth returns to the winners’ circle, Martina McBride makes a mark, and Bluegrass takes over the CMA Awards – for a year, anyway!

The 50th Annual CMA Awards will air live from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 2 at 8/7c.