'Thank You, Jesus and CMT!': The CMT Awards Score a Win With Chaotic But Charming Show

In a sign that the universe has cracked down the middle and is slowly gobbling us all up, the CMT Music Awards, which began in their current incarnation on the cable network Country Music Television in 2002 — and were then known as the Flameworthy Awards — did not air on CMT tonight. Instead, the CMT Awards aired on CBS. Got it?

If not, that’s OK. It’s a whole boring thing involving ratings and contracts and lawyers, but basically the CMT Music Awards used to happen in June in Nashville just before CMA Fest and air on CMT, while the ACM Awards would typically happen around this time in April and be broadcast on CBS. Obviously, things changed — the ACMs took place at a weird time this year, then the CMT Awards took place at a weirder time, and, well, the universe is just irreparably cracked. (But fear not: the CMT Awards will in fact re-air later on CMT.)

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The folks inside Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium, however, seemed oblivious to this cosmic disturbance and got to take in a rather upbeat show on an April evening in downtown Nashville. It wasn’t perfect, but it somehow managed to succeed in being fun, in spite of all the storms, both literal and figurative.

The show got dealt a heavy blow when co-host Kelsea Ballerini disclosed that she’d tested positive for Covid in the days leading up. That meant last year’s host Kane Brown had to step back in on short notice and that Ballerini’s previously announced co-host, Falcon and the Winter Soldier star Anthony Mackie, had to shoulder more of the load. Thankfully, he seemed more than up to the task, hamming it up in an admirably self-aware way and letting Brown play straight man as he joked about the “winner-adjacent lounge” backstage and pretended to down Solo cups of firewater.

Despite her positive Covid test, Ballerini wasn’t a complete no-show: She beamed in remotely from home looking absolutely fabulous in every shot, cracking jokes about how she just sits around in full glam and bathed in perfect lighting. Obviously, we stan. Why nobody mentioned during the broadcast that she was dealing with Covid is another matter entirely (Is even a mention of the pandemic that polarizing?), but her self-deprecating sense of humor and killer looks remained a highlight of the three-hour broadcast.

This being springtime in the South, heavy rains and sometimes violent storms are the norm. Performers who landed a slot on the CMT Awards’ outdoor stage got to walk on the wild side, delivering their songs as water poured off the upper part of the stage and drenched the audience gathered on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. Cole Swindell and Lainey Wilson made it a feature during their intense duet of “Never Say Never,” while Miranda Lambert brushed it off and plowed through “If I Was a Cowboy.”

In the midst of this deluge, it was a mess of reckless love and broken hearts repackaged as breezy AM Gold. Little Big Town dropped some whistling into the new song “Hell Yeah,” Old Dominion broke out a portable xylophone for the chipper “No Hard Feelings,” and Ballerini felt the rush of new love with a performance of “Heartfirst” on her own lawn. Likewise, Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd played off each other for the cheeky classic-country nod “I Can’t Love You Anymore,” and Thomas Rhett and Riley Green had some devilish charm in their ode to bad decisions, “Half of Me.”

It’s worth pointing out that this show actually sounded good. Most of the performances were mixed really well and the live vocals sounded crisp, unlike the cavernous reverb that was going on at the ACM Awards a couple weeks ago. But the CMTs occasionally suffered from a general vibe of trying so hard to be liked as to come off as corny. Some of the A-list stars were absent, but then again, how many times have Jason Aldean and the Queer Eye guys ever been in the same room?

Black Pumas sang “Colors” on one of the last shows they haven’t performed that song yet, but the big harmony vocals from Mickey Guyton helped freshen it up. (Still, too bad it wasn’t her own song instead of a three-year-old single.) Walker Hayes went the easygoing route with “AA,” but its line about keeping his daughters “off the pole” still grates. Toughest of all was Aldean, clearly struggling to hear himself during a collaborative version of “Heaven” with its originator Bryan Adams, who sounded pretty fine in spite of it all.

George Strait wasn’t there to pick up his award, but Cody Johnson was wearing his clothes, so it kind of worked out. Johnson, for his part, gave a tremendous performance of “’Til You Can’t” on the outdoor stage, showing that he’s got vocal power and charisma to match, which one reckons is why everyone is starting to appreciate what the folks in Texas have known forever.

Carly Pearce didn’t win anything, but did give a similarly poised performance, mixing Reba McEntire-style theatricality with the pyrotechnics of Miranda Lambert in her rendition of “Diamondback.” Carrie Underwood pulled a P!nk and did some aerial ballet for “Ghost Story.” Underwood and Aldean also took home a couple of awards for their collaboration “If I Didn’t Love You,” including Video of the Year. “The fact that you guys still care about us this many years into our career, to vote for us, means the world to me,” Aldean said in his acceptance.

The best acceptance speech of the night, by some distance, was Maddie & Tae’s upset Duo Video of the Year win for “Woman You Got.” The two singers were in different locations — Tae Kerr appeared via video at home with a newborn baby, while Maddie Font was in the auditorium to accept. “Let me tell y’all something about the devil: he’s trying to get you when you’re doing something right. But God loves you, God loves you,” Maddie said. Turning to the video of her singing partner, she broke into tears. “I miss you, I can’t do this without you. That’s my girl. And I’ve been drinking because I’m so nervous.”

“I love you, you’re doing great!” Tae responded.

“Tell that baby girl I love her,” Maddie said, before touching on their resilience as a duo and finding the perfect sign off. “Thank you, Jesus and CMT!”

There was one other sign that everybody just wanted to feel a refreshing breeze: Ballerini, in her bedtime clothes and skincare product, introduced the titan Kenny Chesney, who closed out this installment of the CMT Awards with “Beer in Mexico.” “Let the warm air melt these blues away,” Chesney sang in his summery but never stale hit from 2005. The universe may be cracked, but a little warm breeze to help pass this uncertain time sure doesn’t sound half-bad.

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