Country music superstar Luke Combs has broken many records over his astonishingly fast ascent in Nashville, but this summer, he proved he can sell out stadiums — and voters awarded him accordingly. For the second consecutive year, Combs won entertainer of the year at the Country Music Association Awards on Wednesday night on ABC, the most prestigious prize at the genre’s biggest awards show.
“I never know what to say,” said Combs, who also took home the trophy for album of the year for his most recent record, “Growin’ Up.” “I want to thank country music for making my dreams come true. … There is nobody in this category that doesn’t deserve to be standing up here.”
Combs triumphed over Chris Stapleton, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Morgan Wallen — saving the industry from headlines about how Wallen, known to the mainstream audience as the singer who was caught on TMZ video saying the n-word in February 2021, had once again been rewarded on his redemption tour.
Any other potential controversies were also avoided; not a word was uttered about the recent, widely covered social media incident involving Jason Aldean and Maren Morris, after Aldean’s wife, the influencer Brittany, posted an Instagram video that Morris criticized as transphobic. Though Morris said earlier she might skip the show, they were all in attendance. (Both Aldean and Morris were nominated for one award and did not win in their respective categories.)
And although co-host Luke Bryan released a defensive statement last week after he received criticism for inviting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) onstage at a concert, no one touched on politics or current events — save for Bryan and his co-host, Peyton Manning, joking that if Bryan ran for president his slogan could be “A candidate who will never plead the Fifth, but he will drink a fifth.”
Newcomers Cody Johnson and Lainey Wilson tied Combs with two wins; Johnson triumphed with his impossibly catchy hit “’Til You Can’t” in the single and music video categories, while Wilson won new artist and female vocalist. Old Dominion and Brothers Osborne continued their march as industry favorites as group and duo, respectively, and Jordan Davis’s recent smash “Buy Dirt” (featuring Bryan, his labelmate) won song of the year.
A full list of winners and nominees are below — here are some of the highlights from the night.
The Loretta Lynn tributes
The death of 90-year-old Loretta Lynn shook many members of the country music world last month, as they mourned the groundbreaking legend who broke down doors for countless women. The show kicked off with footage of Lynn accepting CMA’s entertainer of the year in 1972, the first time a woman ever won the prize, followed by a tribute from Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Reba McEntire.
The trio sang a sparkling medley of some of Lynn’s greatest hits, including “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” from Underwood, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” from Lambert, “You’re Looking at Country” from McEntire and, of course, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” sung by all three. While it would have been fitting for a woman to finally win entertainer of the year for the first time since Taylor Swift landed the trophy in 2011, alas, Underwood and Lambert went home empty-handed.
Cole Swindell and Jo Dee Messina and ’90s country
It was the moment ’90s country obsessives have been waiting for: The audience started screaming as Jo Dee Messina joined Cole Swindell onstage for an invigorating version of Swindell’s “She Had Me At Heads Carolina,” a reimagining of Messina’s 1996 smash, “Heads Carolina, Tails California.”
It’s hard to overstate how enormous this hit has been for Swindell, who has had several big singles in his career but saw this song explode over the summer and fall, sitting for five weeks at No. 1 on the radio charts — as Nashville knows, ’90s nostalgia is real and overwhelming. Swindell and Messina finally released a remix of the song together this week, timed perfectly to their CMAs performance.
Chris Stapleton and Patty Loveless, together again
The two Kentucky natives performed together at a recent Kentucky benefit concert for flood relief and thrilled the CMAs audience when they joined again for “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Chris Stapleton’s booming voice — there’s a reason he won male vocalist of the year — always sends country fans into a frenzy, and aided by Patty Loveless’s stellar vocals, the crowd was practically on its feet before the song was even over.
The Alan Jackson tribute
There is nothing country award shows love more than showing how much contemporary stars adore the hits from legendary artists, and the camera showcased Kelsea Ballerini, Breland, Ashley McBryde, Combs and many more singing along to Alan Jackson’s classics during his tribute.
Jackson, the recipient of this year’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, took the stage for “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” but a slew of others performed their own versions of Jackson’s hits, including Underwood (“Remember When”) and Dierks Bentley, Jon Pardi and Wilson all together for “Chattahoochee,” “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” and “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.”
Brothers Osborne continued the tradition of electrifying award show performances with a cover of “It’s Only Rock n’ Roll (But I Like It)” by the Rolling Stones — a track on an upcoming country music tribute album called “Stoned Cold Country” — along with the War and Treaty, husband and wife duo Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter, whose powerful vocals added to the riveting spectacle. The Trotters shimmied around the stage as the brothers stayed anchored on guitars, and the camera panned to crowd members dancing like they were having the time of their lives, from T.J. Osborne’s boyfriend to Morgane Stapleton.
Country music award shows these days are known more for glitter than chilling murder ballads, but Hardy and Wilson were determined to change that during a captivating performance of a track that makes you go, “Wait, did he just say what I think he said?” In this case, yes, Hardy sings from the perspective of a man who kills Wilson’s abuser and then goes to jail. And to make sure no one missed the meaning, Hardy — standing in front of a truck — drew his finger across his throat after he sang the line about being in jail: “It ain’t paradise, that’s true / But it’s a whole hell of a lot better than the place I sent him to.”
“I want the people who have been abused to hear the song,” Wilson told the Associated Press. “I want them to feel like they are not alone. But I want the abusers to hear it. I want them to be haunted.”
Kelsea Ballerini’s drinking anthem with a twist
Ballerini has weathered criticism her whole career that she’s “too pop,” but her latest album has some of the most classic country songs of the year — including the upbeat anthem “You’re Drunk, Go Home,” her collaboration with Carly Pearce and Kelly “always seems like she’s on the verge of crossing over to country music” Clarkson. All three singers scornfully informed the drunk man in the song that they were not interested in his pickup lines, and as they belted out the lyrics, for some reason, a brief shower of fire rained down behind them.
Thomas Rhett and Katy Perry’s surprise chemistry
A duet between Thomas Rhett and pop star Katy Perry — decked out in a fringe dress and cowboy hat for the ultimate country authenticity — seems like it should not work … at all. And yet? They were both on their A-game for the collaboration of the wistful “Where We Started,” about a couple’s younger days. Rhett has admitted he was highly doubtful Perry would ever agree to be on the song, and Perry has confessed she had no idea who he was and had to ask Bryan, her fellow “American Idol” judge. But this time, their vocals sounded even stronger than they did when they sang the track together on the “Idol” finale in the spring.
The monologue jokes
Once again, the CMAs continue to struggle to find a hosting combination that can match the presence of Brad Paisley and Underwood, who sharpened their comedic skills over a decade-plus of helming the show. Bryan hosted solo last year and this time was joined by former NFL superstar Manning, who is not only pals with country stars thanks to his University of Tennessee days, but also hosts his own show with his brother Eli on ESPN, owned by ABC’s parent company, Disney.
The monologue jokes mainly consisted of the two making fun of each other (Bryan: “I walked around Nashville trying to find a cowboy hat to fit your head”; Manning: “I thought you really needed a co-host”). But for those who like dragging Eli, there were plenty of digs throughout the night: Manning said he keeps telling Bryan he’s like a brother to him but “he doesn’t realize that’s not a compliment” and later asked the Brothers Osborne if they, like him, only work together because their mom makes them.
The lack of a Naomi Judd tribute
There have been so many country legends who have died in the past year it would have been hard to fit all the tributes in, but the lack of attention given to the iconic Naomi Judd, who died in August, was puzzling. Brothers Osborne took on the task themselves when Wynonna, Naomi’s daughter and duo partner, arrived to announce duo of the year. The brothers insisted she stay onstage with them during their speech. “We’ve learned so much from you and your family,” T.J. Osborne said.
Jeff Cook, co-founder of the band Alabama who died this week, got a shout-out from Bryan, and Old Dominion briefly elaborated on Alabama’s influence during their win for group of the year. “There’s nothing like being in a band,” lead singer Matthew Ramsey said. “I can’t imagine losing one of you guys.”
The uneven balance of televised female winners, again
The country industry has publicly struggled with correcting its gender imbalance, and, once again, it took nearly two hours into the three-hour show before a female singer gave an acceptance speech. Eight out of the 11 prizes went to male acts — Wilson won female vocalist of the year and new artist of the year, while Pearce and McBryde’s win for musical event (for their duet “Never Wanted to Be That Girl”) was awarded earlier off-camera.
Winners and nominees