What last night's CMAs say about the future of country music

The genre’s glaring diversity problem is finally taking a right turn.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - NOVEMBER 10: (L-R) Madeline Edwards, Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer perfo...
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“Whatever makes you country, you are welcome here tonight,” Luke Bryan poignantly mentioned in his opening monologue hosting the 55th Annual Country Music Awards at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena last night. The statement was slipped in between forced award show banter and Bryan’s American Idol co-star judges, Lionel Richie and Katy Perry, sneaking up on him for a cameo — but its importance likely echoed for anyone who caught it. It was a statement of inclusivity that rarely is front and center in the country music arena, especially not at its biggest night celebrating its stars who are usually conservative, white, straight and Christian. But even if it feels forced, and awkwardly late compared to the rest of the music industry, the effort finally being made to drag Big Country into the present was felt at last night’s ceremony.

Country music’s diversity problem goes back to its inception. The genre’s early iterations in rural communities, Appalachia and the deep south are often remembered as being inherently white, but as with many other genres of music, country is actually rooted in African-American instrumentation and tradition. The banjo alone descended from West African lutes made from gourds, brought to the American south by slaves, and were appropriated eventually into black face minstrel shows which are the often glossed over, not so humble beginnings of what was initially called “hillbilly music.” Prolific and painstakingly detailed documentarian Ken Burns highlights the genre’s history of whitewashing its roots in his 2019 16-hour PBS special Country Music.

While the historical legacy of black country forefathers and mothers is finally being more widely recognized, in recent years, the white gatekeeping and undercurrents of racism in country’s present have started to be forcibly reckoned with. The year 2019 saw major rumblings about representation in country after the contentious battle over whether Lil Nas X’s smash single “Old Town Road” could be considered country. Burns told Pitchfork at the time, “The fact somebody has walked into country music, that is not of the color that people presume the people of country music are, and just said, ‘I’m home’ — that is great.” But the jury of industry rule makers still saw Lil Nas X excluded from much of country’s big accolades. CMA 2020 co-hosts Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker tried to gloss over this uncomfortable hiccup by performing a duet of Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” at the ceremony to honor the passing of songwriter Mac Davis. But the performance at the time was widely panned as a cheap stunt for optics that didn’t signify any meaningful progress in the genre.

The insidiousness of the issue, and how engrained racism is in certain country listener demographics, became even harder for the industry to hide from this past February when country star Morgan Wallen was caught on camera drunkenly using the n-word. After being shunned by most industry institutions, fans bought his album at such high numbers, it was the most sold album of 2021 in any genre through the summer. Mickey Guyton tweeted at the time, “When I read comments saying ‘this is not who we are,’ I laugh because this is exactly who country music is. I’ve witnessed it for 10 gd years. You guys should just read some of the vile comments hurled at me on a daily basis. It’s a cold hard truth to face but it is the truth.” Industry monoliths couldn’t hide from the realities the incident made inescapably evident. Still, whether they wanted to or not, this year’s CMAs made actionable choice to change the narrative around who represents country.

Last night’s CMAs saw two black performers nominated for New Artist of the Year for the first time in any category, Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton; Jimmie Allen took home the honor, the second Black artist to ever do so after Darius Rucker in 2009. Mickey Guyton said of her nomination: “You know I receive it, I appreciate the recognition, and I'm thankful. There's so many girls, like me, out there that love all kinds of music, regardless of what we look like." Melinda Newman, an executive editor for Billboard spoke on the palpable progress. “We're seeing an institutional change. We're at a pivotal time for country music, and there's an awareness that country music has not been as open to diversity, and there's a willingness now to say our past does not have to predict our future." Jimmie Allen speaking on his big win gave the historical context: “It started with Deford Bailey and Charley Pride. And then there's Darius Rucker when he came in 2008.” When Rucker rose to country fame he was the first black artist to have a No. 1 country song since Charley Pride in 1983.

Luckily the awards ceremony also showcased this progress on the main stage, and not just through nominations. Jennifer Hudson made her CMA debut performing a tribute to Aretha Franklin, whom she just portrayed in the film Respect, alongside one of country’s rare unproblematic faves, Chris Stapleton. Most impactful though was Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards performing “Love My Hair” off of Guyton’s breakout record. The trio were introduced by young activist Faith Fennidy — whose discriminatory removal from a Louisiana Catholic school over her hairstyle inspired Guyton’s song. Fennity urged, “With your help, we can work together to ensure the next generation grows up in a respectful and open world for natural hair.”

To add to the progress, TJ Osborne of celebrated duo Brothers Osborne, who bravely came out this past February was accompanied by his boyfriend Abi Ventura at the ceremony. Osborne told Entertainment Tonight, “I was like, ‘I hope this doesn't make anyone uncomfortable, but this is how I feel.’ I love this person, and I want to be open in every way. Hopefully [it can] show people that they also don't need to hide or alter themselves in any way." The couple shared an on camera kiss as it was announced that Brothers Osborne had won the award for Vocal Duo of the Year.

Where in years past the CMAs have been a cringe-worthy montage of corny jokes and white nonsense, with fake attempts at diversity and inclusion occasionally peppered in, last night’s ceremony saw meaningful and informed attempts at diversifying the genre. And while Brittany and Jason Aldean continue to make gross anti-Biden t-shirts (that use the American flag in place of the work ‘fucking’), and Carrie Underwood continues to back her husband’s anti-vax sentiments supporting Aaron Rodgers, it’s exciting that the progress of last night’s awards show is what’s really making headlines today. Last night’s theme was the country stars of the future, and it showed.