CMA Awards 2023: Best and Worst Performances, Winners – Vulture

Photo: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

It’s funny to come out of a night with five tributes and legacy performances feeling a bit of hope for the future, but that’s the Country Music Association Awards for you. Country does run on nostalgia, and this year’s CMAs honored everyone from the late Jimmy Buffett to the still-kickin’ Tanya Tucker. But it also gave glimpses of what’s to come — through the embrace of new artists like Jelly Roll, the War and Treaty, and, of course, Lainey Wilson, who brought home the night’s top prize for Entertainer of the Year. The next question is whether it was just a blip or a true turn for the CMAs. For now, here are the highs, lows, and whoas of the night.

The show kicked off with a surprise, as Wynonna Judd joined Jelly Roll, one of the biggest voices in country right now, and gave him a run for his money on his own hit “Need a Favor.” Even with a full choir onstage, her voice was the most powerful.

Peyton Manning, football’s chief Zach Wilson hater, got in a good zinger about the New York Jets offense early into the show. But the rest of his monologue with co-host Luke Bryan was aimless and weak, just like most of Wilson’s passes. For half of it, they were just introducing some of the nominees with barely any jokes. Time to bring in the second-string emcees.

Who’d have thought one of the top winners of a country music awards show in 2023 would be a reclusive singer-songwriter who hasn’t released an album in 15 years? Early in the night, Luke Combs shouted out Tracy Chapman as he won Single of the Year for his cover of her 1988 single “Fast Car,” saying he “never intended” for a performance of one of his favorite songs to get this big. Shortly after, Chapman herself won Song of the Year for the hit. She didn’t attend the show, of course, but said it was “truly an honor” in a statement.

In the words of one of Bryan’s Idol forebears, that was a little pitchy, dawg. Bryan just couldn’t hit his own notes, continually coming up flat during a random medley of his No. 1 hits. And he’s out here critiquing aspiring singers?

But most of the night didn’t sound that bad. Here’s a snapshot: Seconds after Luke Combs casually belted out his song “Where the Wild Things Are,” Chris Stapleton was on the opposite stage, wailing “White Horse” and making it look easy. The show felt like a parade of commanding vocalists trying to outdo one another. We had Jelly Roll and Wynonna doing “Need a Favor,” Lainey Wilson tearing through “Wildflowers and Wild Horses,” the War and Treaty’s soulful “That’s How Love Is Made,” Dan + Shay rocking “Save Me the Trouble,” and Jelly Roll returning to close the show with K. Michelle, dueting “Love Can Build a Bridge.” Not bad.

Thanks to Ashley McBryde’s guitarist and Cody Johnson’s fiddler for saving a lagging run of performances.

Maybe you’d prefer not to pay attention to Morgan Wallen until he’s right on your TV screen, singing a subpar little ditty about girls and drinking. (No, not that one.) In that case, you’d be pretty surprised to see that he buzzed off his signature mullet, even though he actually did it back in August.

Lainey Wilson proved why she deserved to be nominated for Entertainer of the Year when she delivered by far the most entertaining performance of the night. Country’s smoky-voiced new star scorched the stage with “Wildflowers and Wild Horses,” so it was only a matter of time before something caught fire. Once it did, all eyes were still on Wilson.

Guess they don’t just make schmaltzy wife-guy ballads.

Jelly Roll makes it easy for Nashville to keep giving him awards since he’s such a charming recipient. After winning New Artist of the Year, the 39-year-old turned the stage into a pulpit: “I don’t know where you’re at in your life or what you’re goin’ through, but I wanna tell you to keep goin’, baby! I wanna tell you that success is on the other side of it! I wanna tell you it’s gonna be okay! I wanna tell you that the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror for a reason, because what’s in front of you is so much more important than what’s behind you!” By the end, he was yelling, the crowd was on their feet, and everyone watching had chills.

“A Pirate Looks at Forty” has always been a full-proof shot of melancholy, but it hit even harder when Kenny Chesney and longtime Coral Reefer Band member Mac McAnally sang it to honor Jimmy Buffett at the CMAs. Never meant to last, never meant to last. The party kicked up later, like Buffett would’ve wanted, as Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson ran through “Margaritaville” to a spirited response from the crowd. But not without some salty tears getting into those margaritas first. (Side note: If this was an audition to front the Coral Reefer Band, Chesney and Brown would be two stand-up choices.)

He can’t do justice to a Joe Diffie tribute and he doesn’t know the words to “Delta Dawn”?

Just a few years ago, we were lamenting how Tanya Tucker had never even won a Grammy. Now, we’re watching a room full of country singers celebrate her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, while she delivered a performance of “Delta Dawn” with Little Big Town. (And we got the Grammy thing solved too.) What a joy!

Before the show, it seemed well within the realm of possibility for the CMAs to tout a top-nominated female artist, only to give the night’s most prestigious awards to the same men as usual. But the CMAs finally stepped up, awarding Lainey Wilson both Album of the Year and Entertainer of the Year — with the latter going to a woman for the first time since Taylor Swift in 2011. It was a well-deserved moment for one of the more talented, visionary, and, well, entertaining musicians in the room. After 12 years in Nashville, Wilson said, “It finally feels like country music is startin’ to love me back.” And it finally feels like the country industry is starting to move into the present.

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