By Sarah Rodman
November 14, 2019 at 03:50 PM EST

Surprises, solemnity, solidarity, shared stages, and so many songs. The 53rd CMA awards offered a rainbow of emotion and spectacle.  There were grand moments of musicality and a few good laughs with the formidable trio of CMA award-winning hosts Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire, and Dolly Parton.

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Several deserving artists walked away with hardware. The night’s biggest winners with two apiece were Female Vocalist and Video of the Year (“Rainbow”) victor Kacey Musgraves and Male Vocalist and Song of the Year winner (“Beautiful Crazy”) Luke Combs. The night’s leading nominee going into the proceedings, Maren Morris, scored the album of the year prize for GIRL and gave the evening’s most emotional speech praising her late producer Busbee.

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As is normally the case, with few awards to actually hand out, the three-hour telecast on ABC was not short on captivating performances.  Among the highlights were Musgraves and Willie Nelson — clearly having a bit of a struggle but still admirably holding his own at 86 — teaming for a gloriously moving version of the classic “Rainbow Connection.” Eric Church offered the gentle, hard-won wisdom of the acoustic charmer “Some of It.” And Reba McEntire brought the house down — and made three costume changes mid-song — with her classic take on Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy.”

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The show had been billed as a “Celebration of the legendary women in country music.” The assumption was that this theme was chosen, at least in part, because of the ongoing debate about the dearth of female voices on country radio. The numbers tell a tale in which it is clear that programmers favor men over women by a wide margin. The conventional, repeated explanations for this range from insulting (songs by women aren’t as good) to just-the-facts-y’all-nothing-we-can-do (songs by women do poorly in station market research). While this may not have been the only motive, the Country Music Association executed the theme of celebrating women with a couple of truly touching collaborations.

The opening number found Parton, Underwood, and McEntire leading various configurations of classic country singers, including Crystal Gayle, Tanya Tucker, the Highwomen, Terri Clark, Sara Evans, Gretchen Wilson, Jennifer Nettles, and Martina McBride through a mammoth medley of a jukebox of hits from Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Looking at Country” to Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” to McBride’s anthem “Independence Day.” (The 87-year-old legend Lynn was in the house and given a shout-out from the stage as the first woman to ever win the entertainer of the year prize. Only 7 women have done it in 53 years.) Underwood did something very similar on her just-wrapped tour and the effect was similarly moving.

Later in the broadcast a younger generation of artists — Kelsea Ballerini, Runaway June, Lindsay Ell, Maddie & Tae, Carly Pearce and McBryde — were joined by Little Big Town to perform that group’s monster hit “Girl Crush.”  Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild echoed the earlier number noting that we were “looking at the future of country music right here.”

But were we?

The celebratory tone took a slight turn with the final award of the evening, however, when Garth Brooks took the top trophy for Entertainer of the Year for the third time in four years.

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The same body that could recognize Musgraves, Morris, Best New artist winner Ashley McBryde, and Musician of the Year Jenee Fleenor in categories in which both men and women competed could not quite bring itself to give Carrie Underwood the title of Entertainer of the Year. Perhaps she and her label mate and fellow nominee Eric Church, who many, including this writer, felt was equally deserving of the honor, split their voting bloc. Or, maybe, the overwhelmingly white, male voting body of the CMA wanted to reward a legend — again, like they have six times before — for his canny repackaging of his own catalog, his ambassadorship of the genre, and his prodigious ticket sales. Maybe their votes were clouded by their own happy memories of when they blasted “Friends in Low Places” at college keggers. Whatever the case, it is not Garth Brooks’ “fault” that he won. It is no one’s “fault.” Narratives are not neat when it comes to what is, ultimately, unscripted programming. But, it felt like a legitimate anti-climax that, on a night meant to celebrate artistry in general and women’s voices specifically, the accomplishments of the woman who has co-hosted the show for over a decade, just finished a sold-out arena tour and released a well-regarded album in the last year still aren’t deemed good enough.

The morning after, it comes back to the systemic issue of women’s voices not being valued. There remain those who are willfully, obtusely puzzled by the idea that women could actually be marginalized and that marginalization doesn’t lead step-by-step to this outcome. Not getting played on the radio means not getting as many touring opportunities which means not graduating to bigger venues which means not selling as many records and tickets which is part of the criteria for becoming an Entertainer of the Year. Underwood did all that and then some. It’s not the end of the world, but it is disappointing when people seem to be asking: “We threw you a party, why are you still complaining?”

In the conversation about the wildly disproportionate manner with which contemporary country radio programmers approach playing male and female artists, not one female artist or advocate has asked for a party, a pedestal or a pat on the head.  They have asked for parity and a playing field that is level. Period. Jennifer Nettles wore a cape with her ensemble last night on the red carpet that had the words “Play our f*@#!in records, please & thank you” and “Equal Play” written on it. She wasn’t requesting that radio programmers play women more than men. Just give them a fair shake. That’s it. But to those who have historically held the power in any situation, equity can look like a revolution. Apparently, a large portion of the CMA voting body would prefer that the revolution not be televised, please and thank you.

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