Amid controversy, CMA Awards hosts and artists ignore COVID-size elephant in the room

Wednesday’s 54th Annual Country Music Association Awards ceremony seemed doomed before it had even begun. Holding the event in person at an indoor venue, Nashville’s Music City Center — in a COVID age when most music awards shows, from the BETs to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions, have gone virtual — already seemed risky enough. But then there was a coronavirus spike in Nashville this week (Tennessee reported its highest single-day increase on Saturday, with 5,071 new cases), and several artists that were slated to perform or attend — Lee Brice, Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, Lady A’s Charles Kelley, and fiddle player Jenee Fleenor — had to withdraw at the last minute because they had either tested positive for the virus or had been exposed to someone who had. The Kelley news broke only a couple hours before the ceremony, and then, a half-hour into the telecast, a fifth scheduled performer, Rascal Flatts, announced their cancellation due to an unnamed member of the band also testing positive.

Additionally, on the day of the awards, the Associated Press pulled its CMAs coverage entirely, on the grounds that the Country Music Association had allegedly refused to allow an AP photographer into the venue or allow the outlet to use screenshots of the audience members (who were mostly maskless or holding stick-masks that looked like Mardi Gras novelty props). While the CMA did not comment on the AP situation, it did release a statement insisting that the awards ceremony — which took place in the convention center’s biggest ballroom, with the relatively intimate audience of just participating artists and their guests seated at tables eight feet apart and undergoing on-site testing — was safe and not a potential superspreader event. “We are following all protocols that have been put in place by the CDC as well as the creative unions to ensure we provide the safest environment possible,” the statement read.

Carrie Underwood and Lauren Alaina pose while holding stick-masks in front of their mouths at the the 54th Annual CMA Awards
Carrie Underwood and Lauren Alaina attend the the 54th Annual CMA Awards at Nashville’s Music City Center on Wednesday in Nashville. (Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images for CMA)

So, after all that, there was a big, COVID-size elephant in the Music City Center room, of course. But from the way co-hosts Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker were acting, it seemed like Wednesday was any other “Country Music’s Biggest Night.” No mention was made of the pre-ceremony controversy or any coronavirus-related cancellations, and when the coronavirus was acknowledged at all, it was usually with a joke.

“For your safety, I’ve had Morgan Wallen in quarantine in my dressing room for two weeks now. He might make the show, I’m not sure,” quipped Rucker, referring to the night’s Best New Artist winner, who recently got booted from Saturday Night Live for not following COVID-19 protocols. “Not sure if you’ll get the deposit back,” McEntire quipped back. (Incidentally, Wallen recently went on Instagram to call out the “hypocrisy” of post-election celebrations, saying, “If it's OK for us to party in the streets with no ‘social distancing’ then we can book shows right now.”) McEntire also jokingly warned her new boyfriend, Rex Linn, to stay “six feet away” from Carrie Underwood.

When they weren’t cracking jokes, the hosts expressed great delight and zero concern over the opportunity to be back onstage in front of a live crowd. “It's really great to be here, y’all,” said Rucker at the start of the show. “Hey, in 2020 it’s great to be anywhere,” replied McEntire. “Tonight’s a wonderful evening to sing together, stand together, and be together at the end of the year when too much in the world has been pulling us apart, sometimes more than six feet. I mean, Zooms are are fine. Who doesn’t like wearing sweatpants to work? ... But nothing beats standing onstage in front of real people, just looking out at your pretty faces.” It was a sentiment echoed by the night’s top winner, Maren Morris, during her first acceptance speech, when she said, “This is very weird, but I love this kind of setup, because we can all hang out all night with each other.”

Katherine Blasingame, Eric Church, Jon Pardi, Luke Combs, and Nicole Hocking sit around a table and lean in to toast one another, not wearing face masks.
Katherine Blasingame, Eric Church, Jon Pardi, Luke Combs, and Nicole Hocking attend the 54th Annual CMA Awards at Music City Center on Wednesday in Nashville. (Photo: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for CMA)

The only artists to mention the pandemic in a more serious, if apolitical, way were Keith Urban and Entertainer of the Year winner Eric Church. (The CMA had seemingly cautioned artists not to get political during the ceremony with its “no drama zone” social media campaign, but later clarified that that messaging had been misconstrued.) The former somberly introduced his performance of “God Whispered Your Name” with: “Well, here we are. We made it to Nov. 11, 2020. And this song has taken on a few meanings. It’s a song about hope, it’s a song about finding the light. But above all, it’s really a song about not having to go it alone. And so in that spirit, I want to dedicate it tonight to all of the healthcare workers, all the frontline workers and your families, for all the sacrifices that you’ve made and are still making for all of us.” In his Entertainer of the Year acceptance speech, Church said, “I was thinking about this when I walked up here — this award this year, at least for me, has been about the loss of this year. Loss of life, loss of playing shows, loss of freedom, loss of kids being in school. And you know what the win is? The win is, we all were here tonight together, as country music — in person, live, not on Zoom. And I really believe this: It’s going to be music that brings us out of this. That is the one thing that is going to save the entire world. Politicians are about division. Music is about unity. And I promise you, it’s going to take everybody in this room to unite.”

Highlights of the surreal and not exactly socially distanced ceremony included an all-star tribute to the late Charlie Daniels featuring Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Brothers Osborne, and Ashley McBryde (but not fiddler Jenee Fleenor, for obvious reasons); a sentimental and sweet Kenny Rogers tribute by Little Big Town; McEntire and Rucker’s “In the Ghetto” duet to honor recently departed Elvis songwriter Mac Davis; and this year’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, 86-year-old Charley Pride, collaborating with Jimmie Allen. But if there’d been a CMA award for Most Socially Distanced Performance, it would have gone to Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber, who appeared via satellite in an empty Hollywood Bowl to sing “10,000 Hours.”

The 54th Annual Country Music Awards took place at the Music City Center in Nashville on Wednesday, Nov. 11. See the full list of winners.

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