No Zach Bryan. No In Memoriam. But Country Was Back at 2022 CMA Awards

Luke Combs said it best while accepting the trophy for Entertainer of the Year Wednesday night (11-9) at the 2022 CMA Awards: “This is my fifth or sixth year being at this awards show, and country sounded more country than it has in a long time tonight.”

In truth, country music and the CMA Awards righting the ship goes back even further. It was seven years ago at the 2015 CMA Awards where Chris Stapleton was the surprising winner for just about everything at a time when he was a relative unknown outside of his peers in the industry. Then Stapleton took the stage and shocked everyone by performing a 40-year-old song in “Tennessee Whiskey” with Justin Timberlake.

The moment was seen in many respects as a repudiation of Bro-Country, which was all the rage at that time. And both mainstream country and the CMA Awards by proxy have been on a positive trajectory ever since. But it was at the 2022 CMA Awards where it wasn’t just positive signs in a sea of negative ones. The balance of power shifted. There were more traditional country songs, tributes, and artists highlighted than contemporary ones. Many of the contemporary stars had a more traditional country sound. And it was the pop acts and performance that felt like the outliers and out of place.

The CMAs have always been willing to dedicate a 90-second segment here or there to trotting out some country legend. The performance of Chris Stapleton and Patty Loveless singing the country standard “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” lasted over six minutes, and had the song’s writer Darrell Scott playing dobro. A tribute to Loretta Lynn opened the show, and not only included a medley of her hits, but a full version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” It lasted around seven minutes. And aside from the handing out of the Entertainer of the Year award, the last 20 minutes of the 2022 CMA Awards was dedicated to paying tribute to Alan Jackson.

That’s not to mention Carly Pearce singing her Loretta Lynn tribute song “Dear Miss Loretta” with Ricky Skaggs and Sonya Isaacs, or Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark, Pillbox Patti, and Brothers Osborne playing “When Will I Be Loved” made popular by Linda Ronstadt, or a tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis by Elle King. You couldn’t get away from the country classics at the 2022 CMA Awards.

So what exactly is going on here? Not to be entirely cynical, but part of this is most certainly a business decision. The simple fact is that Gen Z and Millennial listeners are just not going to stop down their lives to watch a live music awards show. Many of them don’t consume television whatsoever, or even own one. So why not cater to the audience who may actually tune in, which is the older country fans and more dedicated country fans who’ve always been there for you, and who’ve been marginalized in large sum by the CMA Awards ever since Taylor Swift’s win for Entertainer of the Year in 2009.

But a lot of this just has to do with country music in 2022 being significantly more country. Lainey Wilson and Carly Pearce are new artists. So are Cody Johnson and Ashley McBryde. It just happens to be that their music sounds more country, and more classic. Luke Combs feels very similar to how Chris Stapleton has for years now: safe, and somewhat pallid. But even this is a solid improvement from the time when Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt were dominating the landscape, and repulsing actual country music fans.

Country music is back. And country music is back in country music, and at the CMA Awards specifically. Though pontificators who reside outside of the genre, yet command a large audience since they write for The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc. will continue to say differently, the path forward for country music has never been incorporating and integrating more with pop and hip-hop, but to remain unique and autonomous in the popular music landscape. We saw and heard more steel guitars on the CMA Awards stage Wednesday night than perhaps any time in the last 15 years.

That’s not to say incorporating pop and hip-hop can’t result in short-term commercial boosts like we saw with Bro-Country. But that stuff flames out so quickly, and demonstrably, and leaves a mess for the genre to clean up afterwards. This is why country music is still struggling to find significant traction for women, despite small gains.

If there’s one holdover from the Bro-Country era, it is Morgan Wallen. And despite his fans wanting him to win the biggest awards, and think piece writers rooting for him too so they could rip him apart and impugn country for recognizing him, country music and the CMAs did the right thing: they accepted Wallen into their fold again in an act of forgiveness—just like they did for Maren Morris who ultimately showed after saying she was worried she wouldn’t feel comfortable—but ultimately the trophies when to the more talented and worthy people in the room.

But the evening wasn’t perfect, and neither are the CMA Awards. What we didn’t see is some of the artists that are commanding significant attention from the non-radio and independent realm of country. We did get performances by The War and Treaty and Marcus King from the Americana realm, which was appreciated. But it was outright catastrophic that Zach Bryan wasn’t even invited to at least present an award, let alone perform or compete for the evening’s top prizes. Aside from Morgan Wallen, Zach Bryan the biggest thing going in country music at the moment, arguably even bigger than Luke Combs.

“Guys I don’t and will never want to be considered at the CMA’s,” Zach Bryan said on Thursday morning. “My pride is fine and I appreciate all the love and support and I say it with every ounce of respect to other country artists. Establishments will always be weird … To be clear, I’m not trying to insult the validity of a CMA, I respect any artist who receives one and the existence of them; I’m just saying on a personal level it is not one of my priorities to have awards on a shelf in my home. There’s room for more important things there.”

But it’s not Zach Bryan who needs the CMAs. It’s the CMAs who need Zach Bryan, whether they recognize that at the moment or not. Despite Zach’s young fan base being part of the cord cutting generation, it is the kind of active fans base who would set an appointment to watch the CMA Awards if they knew Zach was performing, or up for top trophies. The CMAs didn’t just miss out on an artist, they missed out on a phenomenon.

And last but certainly not least, despite all the tributes and respects paid to country greats at the 2022 CMA Awards, it’s still a glaring omission that they continue to not air an In Memoriam segment running down all the country legends we’ve lost in the last year. The CMAs used to do this. The ACMs and Grammy Awards still do this. It may seem simple or perfunctory, but even taking 90 seconds to make sure all the fallen greats like Naomi Judd, Olivia Newton-John, Mickey Gilley, and even performers like Luke Bell are recognized goes a long way for friends, fans, and family.

The CMAs regularly draw undue criticism to themselves for this oversight, and no amount of tributes will wallpaper over taking the time to make sure that most everyone is at least pictured or named during the presentation.

Country music most certainly is seeing dramatic improvement, from the support independent artists receive outside of the mainstream industry, to even the CMA Awards which symbolizes the very centerpiece of the country music industry. It doesn’t mean problems and dilemmas don’t still linger, or a level of vigilance isn’t necessary to make sure things don’t backslide and continue to improve in regards to opportunities for all artists, and representation for every country fan.

But even more important is that we recognize the incredible gains we have achieved over the last six or seven years, and make sure we don’t just voice our displeasure, but also our appreciation and satisfaction, while also taking moments to bask in the bounty of joy that country music has contributed to our lives.

Traditional country music fans are so used to being forgotten, marginalized, or outright insulted and repudiated that it can be hard to wake up to the realities that things are changing in a positive direction. There is a lot of scar tissue around their hearts, and bad blood sowed over years to where even the mere mention of something like the CMA Awards draws scorn and ire. But it’s not 2014 anymore, it’s 2022. And in 2022, country music made its way back to the Country Music Association Awards.

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