Lil Nas X (Photo: Getty)
New York – Lil Nas X scored a Country Music Award on Wednesday, a milestone for the gala that can sometimes feel like music’s whitest night.
A little bit country, a little bit southern rap, the Atlanta native’s infectious single Old Town Road was famously booted from Billboard’s country list earlier this year – triggering accusations that the country industry pigeonholed the song as hip hop purely because the novice musician is black.
The award for Musical Event of the Year was given to Lil Nas X – who this year broke a decades-old record for longest reign over the Billboard Hot 100, music’s most closely watched singles chart – along with country veteran Billy Ray Cyrus, who lent vocals for the remix of the hit that received Wednesday’s honour.
The award was presented off-air, but Lil Nas X attended the gala sporting his signature youthful grin along with a black cowboy hat and black western jacket with gold fringe.
The 53rd annual awards show in Nashville, Tennessee kicked off by spotlighting the many women of country’s pantheon, with a medley from more than a dozen female artists.
The performance included a tribute to genre legend Loretta Lynn, who at 87 looked radiant as artists Jennifer Nettles along with Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of the group Little Big Town sang her hit You’re Lookin’ at Country.
The Highwomen, the recently formed supergroup of Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile – an artist who cleaned up at this year’s Grammys – also wowed with a rendition of Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad off Tammy Wynette’s 1967 debut album.
The stars earlier this year formed the collective – which pays homage to the Highwaymen, a male supergroup that included Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson – to highlight the disproportionate number of women artists on country radio and at country festivals.
Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire took over hosting duties, replacing the duo of Underwood and Brad Paisley who had been charged with sprinkling one-liners over the evening for the past 11 years.
“What do you call three women hosting the CMAs? Your lucky night!” quipped Parton, a 73-year-old icon of country but also American pop culture at large, who arrived to the show in a crystal-encrusted cream gown that hugged her famous curves and featured a thigh-high slit.
McEntire, wearing an azure gown that brought out her signature shock of red hair, delivered a more earnest line: “We’re doing it for all the little girls watching tonight, dreaming of ruling the world of country music.
“Or maybe just ruling the world.”
Garth Brooks won the coveted Entertainer of the Year award, besting Underwood, the only woman nominated in the top category this year.
Kacey Musgraves snagged both Female Vocalist of the Year and Music Video of the Year for her song Rainbow, and fiddle player Jenee Fleenor became the first woman to win a CMA for Musician of the Year.
Morris won Album of the Year for Girl, as Luke Combs took home the honor for Male Vocalist of the Year.
Willie Nelson, 86, made his first appearance at the CMAs since 2012.
The illustrious outlaw artist known for his long pigtail braids, activism, and distinctive blend of country, blues and folk performed a duet of the song Rainbow Connection with critical darling Musgraves, whose poppy brand of psychedelia-infused country saw her post a banner 2019.
The night celebrating country’s women did shy from getting particularly political – a CMA tradition of sorts – staying mum on the #MeToo movement and keeping pointed calls for shaking up the gender status quo to a minimum.
After Underwood asked her, “What do you have against men?” Parton kept the banter playful.
“Well, me, if I get lucky!” the superstar said to a chorus of laughter and cheers.