Chris Stapleton and Luke Combs Top CMA Awards, as Jennifer Hudson and Mickey Guyton Steal the Show

Chris Stapleton nearly swept the CMA Awards with six trophies in four categories Wednesday night, but the Country Music Association reserved its top prize for Luke Combs, who won entertainer of the year for the first time.

“(Presenter) Alan Jackson said my name twice just now,” marveled Combs, accepting entertainer of the year as the telecast slipped across the three-hour point. “i have never written a speech for something like this, which is not serving me very well right now…I don’t deserve to win it, but I’m sure as hell glad that I did.” Combs had premiered a brand new song earlier in the night, “Doin’ This.”

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It was Combs’ second time at bat for entertainer of the year; last year he lost it to Eric Church.

The show had its winners largely falling along predictable lines — except for Combs’ entertainer win, which was a matter of some suspense, and Carly Pearce winning female vocalist for the first time — but the telecast took the road less taken with some of its socially conscious performance spots.

Despite missing out in the entertainer category, Stapleton otherwise swept the awards, winning honors for male vocalist as well as album, single and song, all for his “Starting Over” album and its title track. He was a double-winner in two of those categories for being a producer as well as artist and songwriter.

Along with Stapleton, several others were making repeat trips to the podium, like Old Dominion, picking up the band’s fourth win for group of the year, and Brothers Osborne, also getting a fourth trophy for vocal duo of the year.

But it wasn’t just business-as-usual all night for Brothers Osborne and others. Introducing the song “Younger Me,” singer TJ Osborne said it has been his dream growing up to be at the CMAs, but “there were so many hurdles for me. And I always truthfully felt like it would never be possible because of my sexuality. And I just wish, I wish, my younger me could see me now.” The song that followed was written by Osborne after he came out as gay early in 2021, still a rarity in the mainstream country realm.

Also making a statement was Mickey Guyton, who sang her recent album track “I Love My Hair,” joined in a trio by fellow Black artists Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards, who together ensured that country music was having one of its best hair days ever. “I Love My Hair” was introduced by Faith Fennidy, a Black student in Louisiana who was sent home from school after being told her braids violated school policy, an incident that inspired Guyton to write the song.

Madeline Edwards, from left, Mickey Guyton, and Brittney Spencer perform at the 55th annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021 - Credit: AP
Madeline Edwards, from left, Mickey Guyton, and Brittney Spencer perform at the 55th annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021 - Credit: AP

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Black artists were featured throughout the three-hour ABC telecast, not least of all Jimmie Allen, who won best new artist, in a field that had been expected to see the win go either to him or Guyton.

Jennifer Hudson was a scene-stealer, bringing down the house by doing a medley of country or country-R&B crossover songs that Aretha Franklin had performed during her career, joined on guitar by the man of the night, Stapleton.

In the virtual press room after the telecast, TJ Osborne addressed Brothers Osborne’s win. “When I came out, I didn’t know how that would be received. After that happened a lot of people gave support and were loving me,” he said, but in the back of his mind, he admitted, he still wondered: “What does that mean? A pat on the back and ‘See you later’? So to be see people meaningfully invest” in the duo with a win, he said, “This is not just a ‘We love you’ text. This is people wanting to pick us up and carry us on. Out of all the crazy shit in this world that gets a lot of attention, something positive happened tonight.”

T.J. Osborne, left, and John Osborne, of Brothers Osborne, pose in the press room with the award for best vocal duo of the year at the 55th annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Ed Rode) - Credit: AP
T.J. Osborne, left, and John Osborne, of Brothers Osborne, pose in the press room with the award for best vocal duo of the year at the 55th annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Ed Rode) - Credit: AP

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Stapleton’s win for album of the year for “Starting Over” came as a relief to some — but certainly not all — of the Nashville community. There had been some anticipation that Morgan Wallen might win the award for “Dangerous: The Double Album,” which would have led to some uncomfortable media scrutiny and questioning headlines, since Wallen had been barred from performing on or even attending the ceremony. The CMA board had decided that, due to the scandal over his being caught saying a racial slur, Wallen would not be eligible for any awards except for those that also included other nominees — in other words, he couldn’t compete for entertainer or male vocalist, but anything else was fair game.

The possibility that Wallen could have won was underscored by the huge fan cheers that greeted the mention of his name when album of the year nominees were being announced, sounding much louder in the feed from Bridgestone Arena than those for any other nominee. Susan Sarandon was a co-presenter of the album of the year award, so an opportunity to see the look on the face of one of Hollywood’s most famously progressive figures if she’d had to announce a Wallen triumph was lost.

Carly Pearce poses in the press room with the female vocalist of the year award at the 55th annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021 - Credit: AP
Carly Pearce poses in the press room with the female vocalist of the year award at the 55th annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021 - Credit: AP

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Pearce was clearly the most shocked winner of the night, with a long pause as she was at a loss for words until friend Ashley McBryd stepped in to joke, “What she meant to say was…” Eventually Pearce was able to find words, saying, “I’ve had a crazy year and this means everything to me. Country music saved me at a time when I needed it.” Her recent album, “29: Written in Stone,” has been one of the most acclaimed albums of the years, and chronicles her recent divorce in song.

Luke Bryan hosted the CMAs for the first time, after previously having co-hosted the ACM Awards. He was joined twice on stage by Lionel Richie and Katy Perry, plugging the network’s upcoming season of “American Idol.”

Combs, still one of the biggest superstars of country music, made a running joke of his relative lack of nominations this year. Introducing Combs’ performance, he joked about how “lately when I’m Googling myself,” Combs would come out on top among Lukes, “and I’m pretty sure alphabetically I come first. … I used to own the Luke real estate, but unlike my personal favorite Luke, this one has three nominations.”

Although the comedic monologues at the start of the show have gotten less topical since longtime co-hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley stopped doing the job, there was an interesting moment in Bryan’s between him and Underwood … or at least between Underwood and the camera.

Bryan quipped that it was “great to be here with all my fellow artists, tested and together. Or… immunized? Just playing,” he said, obviously alluding to the hot topic of football player Aaron Rodgers’ subterfuge about his vaccination status. The cameras cut to Underwood in the audience, giving what many viewers characterized as “side-eye” about the joke. Underwood and her husband, Mike Fisher, have been under the microscope this week after Fisher made a social-media statement in support of Rodgers’ anti-vax views and Underwood liked it.

Aside from Stapleton, Kelsea Ballerini and Kenny Chesney were the only other double-winners this year, both of them sharing music video and musical event prizes for their duet on “Half of My Hometown”; those two awards were given out earlier in the day on “Good Morning America.”

Other performers included Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley (with Hardy and Breland), Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett, Dan + Shay, Zac Brown Band, Gabby Barrett, Blake Shelton, the teaming of Kane Brown and Chris Young, and another duet between Underwood and Jason Aldean. That’s not counting an a cappella snippet of “Strawberry Wine” that original singer Deana Carter and recent chart-topper Lainey Wilson did in a co-presenting spot.

Jimmie Allen poses in the press room with the new artist of the year award at the 55th annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021 - Credit: AP
Jimmie Allen poses in the press room with the new artist of the year award at the 55th annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021 - Credit: AP

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The complete list of winners:

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

  • Luke Combs

SINGLE OF THE YEAR

  • “Starting Over” – Chris Stapleton
    Producers: Dave Cobb, Chris Stapleton
    Mix Engineer: Vance Powell

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

  • “Starting Over” – Chris Stapleton
    Producers: Dave Cobb, Chris Stapleton
    Mix Engineer: Vance Powell

SONG OF THE YEAR Award goes to Songwriter(s)

  • “Starting Over”
    Songwriters: Mike Henderson, Chris Stapleton

FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

  • Carly Pearce

MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

  • Chris Stapleton

VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR

  • Old Dominion

VOCAL DUO OF THE YEAR

* Brothers Osborne

MUSICAL EVENT OF THE YEAR

  • “Half of My Hometown” – Kelsea Ballerini (featuring Kenny Chesney)
    Producers: Kelsea Ballerini, Ross Copperman, Jimmy Robbins

MUSICIAN OF THE YEAR

  • Jenee Fleenor, Fiddle

MUSIC VIDEO OF THE YEAR Award goes to Artist(s) and Director(s)

  • “Half of My Hometown” – Kelsea Ballerini (featuring Kenny Chesney)
    Director: Patrick Tracy

NEW ARTIST OF THE YEAR

  • Jimmie Allen

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