CMT Music Awards Go Big in Texas With Questionable Results – Rolling Stone

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As Willie Nelson once sang, there’s no place but Texas — and some of country music’s hallmark awards shows seem to agree. In the past two years, two big-budget ceremonies have been staged not in Nashville, but in the Lone Star State. On Sunday, the CMT Music Awards, airing on CBS, made their return to Austin for a second consecutive year and leaned hard into all the trappings of Texas.

Native son Cody Johnson opened the show with an everything-is-bigger performance of a song called “That’s Texas.” Cowboy hats were ubiquitous, including on host Kelsea Ballerini, who donned Barbie’s pink Western getup for a skit. Even the Buc-ee’s beaver, the mascot of the beloved Texas convenience-store chain, made an appearance, sidling up next to Keith Urban during a goofy segment about reading artists’ minds.

Perhaps the move to Texas and the celebration of all its imagery is a way of acknowledging the state’s status (and that of nearby Oklahoma) as the current hotbed of country music. Few scenes in Nashville and beyond are as vibrant and exciting as the red-hot Red Dirt movement presently transforming once-regional names like Parker McCollum, who performed on the CMT Awards, and Zach Bryan, who did not, into mainstream stars.

But as it turns out, transporting a longtime Nashville production to Texas can only do so much. Despite its second year at the Moody Center in Austin, the CMT Music Awards occasionally struggled to find its footing. On one hand, there were moments that rivaled anything seen on a country awards show stage in the last 10 years. Trisha Yearwood’s live debut of her instant classic “Put It in a Song” was sublime. The tribute to Toby Keith by Brooks & Dunn, Lainey Wilson, and, in particular, Sammy Hagar deftly threaded the needle between reverent and rowdy. And Little Big Town and Sugarland’s heavenly union on Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home” reminded many of us how sweet it is to hear expert singers ply their trade. (We already cannot wait for that tour this fall.)

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McCollum’s performance of his radio hit “Burn It Down,” rendered as a collab with Brittney Spencer, was also a win, even if Spencer was relegated to a special guest role. And a cameo by Melissa Etheridge, who darted onto the stage to sing “Come to My Window” with the ebullient Ballerini, was inspired, nostalgic fun.

But other set pieces left us scratching our heads, specifically when the action shifted across town to the University of Texas at Austin for performances by Jason Aldean, Bailey Zimmerman, Old Dominion, and more.

Right after Johnson’s live show-opening, the music continued with a pretaped performance by Aldean of his song “Let Your Boys Be Country.” Immediately, the framing of the campus’s imposing tower behind him, bathed in red and blue lights, called to mind the Tennessee courthouse setting of Aldean’s controversial video for “Try That in a Small Town” — a music video depicting scenes of protests that CMT refused to play. Unlike that fear-mongering song, “Let Your Boys Be Country” is a benign lesson in country manners and coming-of-age, but it was hard to miss a similarity in the production.

Even more questionable, however, was the decision to film multiple performances in front of the University of Texas’ Tower at all, where in 1966 a gunman opened fire from its observation deck, killing 14 people. That was 58 years ago and, to many fans watching the awards, it’s ancient history. But Route 91 is not.

Considering that the largest mass shooting in modern American history happened at a country music festival in 2017 — while Jason Aldean was onstage — the Tower setting deserved a second thought.

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But in the end, the CMT Awards have always strived to promote unity and spotlight diversity, especially over the last few years. On Sunday, they tapped four Black women who sang on Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter album — Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy, Reyna Roberts, and Spencer — to present an award. It was a nice moment of recognition, but it was also the night’s only mention of country’s biggest story, even as Beyoncé just became the first Black woman to score a Number One country album.  


That felt like a missed opportunity to shine light on a watershed moment in country’s history. Even more — why not use that moment to give performance slots to some or all of Adell, Kennedy, Roberts, and Spencer?

“It can be really hard to stand up for what is right and what you believe in,” Trisha Yearwood said earlier in the evening while accepting the inaugural June Carter Cash Humanitarian Award. “Love one another…not just say it, but let’s actually go out there and do it.”

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