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These weren’t your grandfather’s CMA Awards… or even yours, from, say five years ago. A new generation has been firmly installed, between the big look for Lainey Wilson, who is only on her second major-label album but was named entertainer of the year, and other winners from Luke Combs to Hardy, who were also unknown a decade ago. When Chris Stapleton suddenly nearly seems like the “old guard” after only six years of accruing awards, things have changed.
The year’s winners came through the backstage area to discuss what their wins mean and, in some cases, how country is changing. Read some of their comments, below, followed by a photo gallery.
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(For a full recap of Wednesday night’s winners and acceptance speeches, read Variety‘s coverage of the telecast here.)
Country’s newly crowned Entertainer of the Year was surprised, but not shocked, maybe, to win the genre’s top prize, even if it came earlier into her the record-making part of her career than probably anyone anticipated. (As country historian and Country Insider trade editor Brian Mansfield pointed out, there are only two artists in history who have won the entertainer prize the year after winning best new artist, now: Garth Brooks and Wilson.)
“You’re gonna think I’m crazy, but the truth is, I knew this,” said Wilson. “I knew that this would happen. I knew that I would be here. I feel like sometimes you gotta pretend. You gotta put yourself into the shoes of things that you’re not, so one day you can become what you want to be and what you knew that you could be. And that’s what I’d do when I was having those lonely nights in my camper trailer out in West Nashville.” (She spent her first few years in Nashville living in a camper on an associate’s property.) “I was envisioning myself being here. I was waiting outside of the Bridgestone to get a little wristband so I could maybe be down in the in the pit, and just feel like I was a part of this industry. I knew it. I knew it with every fiber of my being. And that sounds wild, but it’s true. And I think a lot of people around me, my mom and my daddy, especially, they knew it, too. And I’ve always had kind of a weird sense of peace about it. But I do feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
Wilson spoke about being part of a signal change between the last era and the next in country.
“I think that we are in a very pivotal time right now in country music,” she said. “I’m very proud to be a part of this generation of country music. You’ve got Jelly Roll, you got Morgan, you got Hardy, you got Luke Combs, you got folks like Ashley McBride and Kelsea (Ballerini), and they all look different. They all sound different. They all have different stories. They all come from different places, and I think it’s really important, for that to be a thing. Because there’s a lot of different kind of people in the world who need to hear all the different sides of stories. For me, I will say I hope that, if you say that I’m kind of leading the pack or whatever, I hope that it will encourage people to stay true to themselves, stay true to their stories, stay true to their sound, stay true to their look. Don’t let anybody tell you ‘no.’
“At the end of the day, it’s all about timing. And I’ve been in this town for 12 and a half years. But I didn’t start working on this 12 and a half years ago. I started working when I was 9 years old, and that is the truth. So I’m hoping that I can show folks, hey, you know what? Blood, sweat, and tears, elbow grease, and faith — it’ll take ya as far as you want it to go.”
After winning Entertainer of the Year in 2021 and 2022, Combs did not hold onto that crown, faced with the juggernaut that is Wilson’s lovability factor. But the Nashville-based industry clearly still is in love with this stadium headliner too, considering the two awards that went to his “Fast Car” cover early in the night — for single of the year, which went to him, and song of the year, which was given to its writer, Tracy Chapman. Those awards might have meant more to Combs than the ceremonial top one, given how personal “Fast Car” was for him, even as a remake of a classic.
“It’s insane, really, the journey,” Combs said. “I remember sitting in my apartment; I was teaching myself how to play guitar at 21 years old, and spending just days and days and days trying to teach myself how to play that lick, which we all know is so iconic. I finally figured it out after about a month and a half or two months because I was so new at playing guitar, but I knew that I wanted to play that song and I remember the first time I got it down. Then I tried to sing while I was playing and I couldn’t do it because it was so advanced of a thing for me and where I was as a guitar player. It took me a few more months to be able to sing it and play it at the same time… That song’s been a huge part of my life for a long time, and all credit to Tracy for writing one of the best songs ever.”
Asked if he’d had any private communication with the long-reclusive Chapman (who sent a statement of thanks to be read when she won her CMA), Combs said, “I’ve never met Tracy. We haven’t communicated outside of our kind of official correspondences to each other. But that’s something that I hope to do one day in the future. I think she was a trend-setting, barrier-breaking artist when she came out, and she continues to be that to this day. I think tonight is the point proven in that. So I’m super, super humbled to just be a super-small part of this.” (Asked further if anyone had tried to enlist Chapman for a duet on the show, Combs added, “Not that I’m aware of. I don’t know if that happened or not. I think that would have been super-cool, to do that. But if (a discussion) happened, nobody told me about it.”)
Recording “Fast Car” was the furthest thing from a crossover attempt, he said, though it put him high up on the pop charts, flukily enough.
“I didn’t record this song for recognition. I didn’t record it to try to have a career moment,” he said. “I recorded it because I love it and because I love music and I love what that song has meant for me throughout my entire life. It’s something that reminds me of me and my dad, and (is) the song that I’ll play for my son and a song that ultimately will go down in my history to be synonymous with me now as well, which is insane to think about, because it’s meant so much to me.”
Queried about show highlights, Combs cited a powerful duet by husband-and-wife duo the War and Treaty, saying that “was a super standout for me — and the Jimmy Buffett tribute” with Kenny Chesney, Mac McAnally, Zac Brown and Alan Jackson. “I was having a real good time when that was going on… Man, the War and Treaty, just unbelievable talent. Unbelievably amazing human beings as well. I got to spend just a sliver of time with them over the last year or so. Hopefully tonight was their moment” of breaking through to a mass audience. “They deserve it. That was impressive.”
The rapper-turned-country star Jelly Roll was in near-Pentecostal mode in accepting his new artist of the year award on the telecast, and only slightly toned down by the time he got around to meeting the press backstage later. There was no mistaking why the Country Music Association and the network chose him to both open and close the show with his performances.
Given that he has been open about his issues with substance abuse and mental health in the past, one of the first questions he was asked in the press gaggle was whether, amid this run of success and acclaim, he has been “taking care of himself.” He answered, “Oh dude, I’m doing better than I’ve ever done. I’ve been eating better, losing weight, drinking water, not drinking as much. But when I drink, I still drink a lot. Tonight will be one of those nights.
“I tell you, as new artist of the year, I’m feeling great. And you know, the cool thing is I was telling my wife just seconds ago, I haven’t touched my phone tonight at all. I have lived this moment, dude. I got to sit next to Zac Brown and my wife and Lainey Wilson and Post Malone. I soaked in every moment. I literally don’t know what the phone is saying. I’m hearing good things. I hope it’s true.”
Jelly Roll couldn’t be getting a bigger embrace than the one country music has been giving him in 2023. He said, “I always heard country music was a family, and I thought they were full of shit. And then I got to get involved in this, and it is a real family. Me and Luke (Combs) were just out there clinking awards, dude. It’s the coolest thing ever. I mean, that dude’s gonna go on to sell out stadiums for the next 30 years, if he wants to. It’s crazy, the moment that we’re in a country music, and Cody Johnson and Zach Bryan… The love I get is because I respect so much that country music is casting a bigger net than it’s ever casted… When ladies like Lainey and Kelsea Ballerini are standing up there with an acoustic guitar and killing it, and Ashley McBryde’s raising the roof, and the whole time we’re just losing our shit out there like fans… It was like me and Zach Bryan and my wife were tailgating. I thought we were waiting on a college football game or something, watching a band in the parking lot. It was one of the greatest nights ever.
“So it’s easy to love people and be loved, because I love people. I hated people forever. I hated life. I blamed everybody but myself. I’m in an era where I just want to love people and be loved and it feels good.”
He holds a special place in his heart for the new belle of the ball: “I don’t know if you know it or not, but I got the No. 5 song on country radio with the entertainer of the year right now, baby. Thank you, Lainey.”
Just a few days earlier, Jelly Roll had been playing in a WalMart parking lot for a toy drive he instigated. “Who would I be to be so blessed and not turn around and try to be a blessing?” he said. “So the toy drive this year was kind of my daughter’s dream. To be honest, she started doing it at a real small local level with her aunt that owns a bar in White House, Tennessee for the last four or five years, and called it Buddy’s Toy Drive after my late father. So we had a platform to do it big, and Walmart came in, Hasbro, the Nashville Predators, the fire department, the Metro. The mayor met me in a Walmart parking lot in Antioch, Tennessee. If you ever told me that the county commissioner, the Antioch commissioner and the mayor were coming to see me, I would have been petrified: God, what law did I break? … I’m going to put up probably a hundred grand of my own money into toys, and we’re going to try to do the biggest toy drive that’s ever happened in Nashville. Just a dream.”
Of his image as an inspirational and even cuddly figure, he said, “First of all, it’s just because they hadn’t met nobody that knew me in my twenties. I’m so glad we’re judged on who we are, not who we were.” He thanked country radio “for changing my life. Just like the CMAs took a chance on me. Just like every journalist in here that looked at me the first time and was like, ‘What the fuck?,’ but still took a chance on me. It has been, it’s been one of the greatest stories ever told: An almost 40-year-old man won New Artist of the Year after releasing 300 songs in his career.”
Getting personal, the performer said, “I was acting kind of weird at the house one time, and (his wife) said, ‘You know, you ain’t wrote a song in three months.’ I think what helps me with my mental health, and that helps me be so joyous… (is) understanding the therapy that is involved with not only songwriting, but just music in itself. and the true power that music holds. Listen, y’all, respectfully, I’m not here to entertain. I’m here to connect. That’s what music did before I was as articulate as I am now… which I’m proud of myself for. I could only speak in the form of song. Even sometimes, like Jim Croce, I had to tell my wife I love her in a song.”
Stapleton, who won best male vocalist yet again, was at the show on the heels of a different ceremony five days prior, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, helping salute inductee Willie Nelson.
“I’d never been to any Rock and Roll Hall of Fame event,” he said. “We rehearsed all the songs we were going to do beforehand. And there was a moment (when) Willie was sitting here and I was sitting here and Dave Matthews was over there giving a speech Inducting Willie, going over his whole life — and this is 90 years; Willie Nelson says there’s a lot to go over. And then Willie goes on to give a speech about his life and career, and then he leans over to me and he goes, ‘All right, what song we playing first?’ It was ‘Whiskey River,’ and we dove into it. It was one of my favorite musical moments maybe that I’ve ever had in my life … the gravity of that moment.”
In his acceptance speech, Stapleton had given a nod to two people in his life who have died recently. One was Mike Henderson, a former bandmate in the Steel Drives whom he had continued to write songs with into his solo career. The other name was harder to make out, and he was asked about it backstage. “It was a gentleman named Eric Burrows that used to run security for us and ran around with us on the road and toured with us quite a bit and took care of our family and people. And he passed away the day before yesterday,” Stapleton said quietly. “He was just on my mind. The kids loved him dearly. We loved him dearly. He was a wonderful man.”
Hardy won two awards, both in tandem with Wilson, his duet partner for “Wait in the Truck.” The song aims to take seriously the subject of domestic violence… while also indulging in a classic country trope, in having the protagonist become a righteous murderer.
He harked back to the moment his co-producer sent him the finished demo — or finished apart from the female co-lead vocal to come. “After I heard it fully produced, I just started weeping, and I’ve never done that, especially with my own song, because that is kind of weird and douchey a little bit,” Hardy said. “But my wife, Callie, who was my girlfriend at the time, was like, what’s going on? And I said, ‘I think I wrote the best song that I’ve ever written in my life, o a song that’s a career song.’ I just knew this song is going to help people/ Go forward a year and I asked Lainey to do it. I’ve known Lainey forever, and I was just watching her grow and find her voice…I just knew that she was going to become that character in that song, and when you become that person, you sing, and you speak with conviction, and when you speak with conviction, people believe it. And when you have a story that you need people to believe, it’s very important. So I asked her to do it and she did it, and the rest is history. We’re here.”
He continued, “I think it’s polarizing, and thankfully most of the people in the country format are on the right side of the polarizing side of that. It talks about something that’s very important to be talked about that hasn’t really Necessarily been talked about a whole lot from a guy’s perspective. Carrie Underwood been there. Miranda’s been there. But it’s it’s a lot easier, maybe, to talk about it from a girl’s perspective perspective, getting revenge on a guy that maybe has committed some sort of domestic violence… It’s a new perspective on that… and I can personally say that I’ve gotten so many messages (and) contacted by so many people that talk about how they’ve been through that and, to be completely honest with you, how they wish that they had somebody that would have done what this person did in that song.”
Although the theme of retribution “might seem harsh and in this day and age, there’s a lot of people that went through that shit, and they wish that that would have happened to them, and somebody would have been their savior, and that means a lot. Also, it means a lot to me, knowing that murder ballads and story songs are the foundation of what country music is built on, in some form or fashion…. I’m really proud to see a song like that thrive and still survive in country music. I think it kind of keeps the blood pumping through country music, the foundation it was built on.”
The brothers won best duo for a sixth time. Said guitarist John Osborne, “Oddly it has always felt like it was this close to slipping away from us. And I don’t know if it feels that way for other artists” on similar winning streaks. “But I do think (about) if we’re cool, if we’re still going to be relevant, if we’re still going to have a job… I wonder if this is the last year that we get to feel like we’re on top of the world, and then it keeps happening. I guess the thing I need to change is probably just wake up and realize that we’re gonna be here for a while, at least I hope. And (I should) probably get a better therapist.”
John Osborne talked about having gotten a large new chest tattoo. “It is a sailor ship, and I’ve been very vocal about my mental health and a lot of the struggles I’ve had over the years, and he (his brother, singer TJ Osborne) actually told me this quote after I had gotten the sailor ship tattoo: ‘Smooth waters don’t make good sailors.’ It’s an amazing philosophy and it’s something I’ll carry with me forever. I feel like I have become my best self in the most trying times of my life.”
TJ talked about his spectacularly flashy jacket — which was well in keeping with the culture of couture in country, and yet, the kind of thing he once avoided because he would have still been in the closet along with anything that fancy.
“I had this jacket made for Stagecoach, and I always love jackets like this. And when I was closeted I was very fearful that if I wore anything flashy that it would bring questions or doubts” about his being gay. “So I just always avoided that. Then, playing Stagecoach… I thought, ‘Wow, this is like the first time I’ve ever had this big performance that I’m able to really step into myself, in a very public way here.’ And I want to just feel comfortable and do these things. Even though this is a very common thing in country music. I always felt uncomfortable doing that. And so I wore it tonight, mainly because it was extremely expensive and I wanted to reuse it.”
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