From veterans Taylor Swift and Shania Twain to current hitmakers Kane Brown and Sam Hunt, Wednesday night’s 2020 CMT Music Awards was a gathering of superstars.
Kane Brown, Ashley McBryde, and Modern Family star Sarah Hyland hosted the ceremony from Nashville. Performances were filmed from various locations around the Nashville area.
Which moments are we still talking about hours later? Here’s our recap of our favorite moments from the Nashville ceremony, presented in no particular order.
2020 CMT Music Awards Highlights
Sam Hunt performs “Hard to Forget”
We haven’t necessarily been the biggest fans of Sam Hunt’s bro country singles over the years, but “Hard to Forget” is brilliant. It’s one of the first mainstream country singles ever to incorporate a sample (welcome to the 1990s, Nashville!) and it has that clever wordplay on the hook “You’re playing hard to forget.”
Hunt’s performance didn’t have massive bells and whistles, but it didn’t need any. Wearing a plain yellow tshirt, a bearded Hunt faithfully recreated the track, which may be the best country music single of 2020. You tune into any country music award show to see the biggest hits of the past several months, and this one delivered.
Maren Morris slows things down
Maren Morris (why isn’t she up for Entertainer of the Year?) delivered a beautiful acoustic rendition of “To Hell and Back.” Morris appeared to be performing from a well-lit attic inside a cabin. She and her guitarist gently strummed while letting her voice guide the song.
Sadly, this song has only peaked at #32 on the country airplay chart. The optimistic message and pretty melody of this love song deserve better.
Special shout-out to Morris’ Highwomen bandmate Brandi Carlile for sporting a Black Lives Matter when she introduced the performance. You wouldn’t see that at the more traditional ACM or CMA Awards.
Jennifer Nettles earns recognition for speaking up for equal airplay for women
Speaking of things you wouldn’t see on a traditional country music awards show: Few people at the CMAs or ACMs publicly talk about the ridiculous lack of radio airplay that female artists get in comparison with men.
But here, co-host Hyland had an entire segment dedicated to the CMT Equal Play initiative. “Female artists have always been the backbone of country music,” Hyland said. “Yet over the last decade, we’ve witnessed a sharp decline in airplay for female creators.” She went on to present Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles with the inaugural CMT Equal Play Award.
Hyland presented a video package with comments from Nettles, Reba McEntire, Miranda Lambert, and others discussing the lack of equality on radio. Included was footage of Nettles from last year’s CMA red carpet, where Nettles wore a cape with a strong message urging radio programmers to play music by women.
Shania Twain turns back the clock with Charlie Chaplin
The biggest-selling female country artist in history made a special appearance. Shania Twain sang her classic “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” from her adopted country of Switzerland. Normally, it would be lame for a performance to take place on tape in another country, but since covid has forced so many of these performances and speeches to take place via Zoom, it’s not such a big sin this time.
Twain’s performance had some serious showmanship, as the singer wandered around Chaplin’s World, getting up close with the mannequins as she played to the camera. The song was chosen because Shania is celebrating the 25-year anniversary of her breakout record The Woman in Me.
Old Dominion capture Group Video of the Year
We love all the nominees in this category, which featured Little Big Town, Lady A, Midland, and the Chicks. Any of them would have been deserving winners, but it was nice to see Old Dominion take the trophy for “One Man Band.”
“This song has been so big for us, and this video is so amazing that our director Mason made of us just rehearsing the song. We’re so proud of it and so thankful for our whole team,” said singer Matthew Ramsey.
Taylor Swift presents Gabby Barrett the Breakthrough Video award
T-Swizzle appearing at a country music ceremony – that’s a rarity these days! She presented the Breakthrough Video award to Gabby Barrett for “I Hope,” the undeniably catchy track that has crossed over to pop radio via a Charlie Puth feature.
“I’m so new to this, this is my first time receiving a television award,” an excited Barrett exclaimed as she thanked her family and fans. She delivered a solid rendition of the song on the broadcast as well.
Luke Bryan sounds strong on “What She Wants Tonight”
Introduced by his fellow American Idol judge Katy Perry, Luke Bryan delivered a solid outdoor performance of “What She Wants Tonight,” one of his best hits from 2020.
Wearing the usual uniform of a leather jacket, black jeans and cowboy boots, Bryan sounded strong vocally as spotlights lit up him and his band. The song hit #1 earlier this year.
Kelsea Ballerini and Halsey channel Coyote Ugly
It’s been 20 years since Coyote Ugly, so for the younguns who don’t remember that film, Kelsea Ballerini and Halsey gave an homage with their performance of “The Other Girl.” Performing in an empty dive bar set, the country singer and pop star wore tight, revealing outfits and danced suggestively around the bar.
Halsey jumped on the bar for her verse, while both singers moved to the dance floor for the final chorus. This was definitely more risque than anything we’re used to seeing from a country music awards show, but it makes sense given Ballerini’s move towards pop music.
Carrie Underwood extends her CMT record
Early in the night, Underwood won Female Video of the Year for “Drinking Alone,” her 21st career CMT Award. That extended her record for most wins in the show’s history.
She broke the record later when she won the big award, Video of the Year, for the same clip. “This one is really all about you guys,” Underwood said from her home to the fans as she accepted her 22nd career award, and 8th (!) in this category.
Little Big Town close with a raucous “Wine, Beer, Whiskey”
Perhaps the night’s most forceful performance came from Little Big Town, whose loud guitars, horns, and vocal melodies on “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” packed a strong punch. Why hasn’t this song become a smash hit on the country charts yet?
The group performed inside Ruskin Cave, with laser lights projected onto the cave, creating a cool visual spectacle. Perhaps this performance will give the song some new life. It was our favorite live moment of the evening.
Other random thoughts
-Honorable mention goes to the live performances by Gabby Barrett, Dan + Shay, and Luke Combs with Brooks & Dunn.
-Kudos to the CMT Awards for clocking in at a tidy 2 hours and 15 minutes. Virtually every award show these days goes 3 hours, but most of them, like last week’s 2020 Billboard Music Awards, don’t have quite enough content to fill that much time.
-Many of the award winners genuinely seemed surprised, so it appears that the winners weren’t informed in advance. Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, in particular, had a spontaneous reaction of joy after they won Collaborative Video of the Year. They had a right to be shocked, considering that their competition included Justin Bieber with Dan + Shay.
-Am I the only one who thinks the stomping electronic beat of Ashley McBryde’s “Martha Divine” sounds exactly like the one from Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People?” Someone make a mashup, asap!
-The fact that the CMT Awards have a category dedicated to the best live performances from the network’s own shows really proves that the network has fully lived up to its potential. They have so much great live content that airs throughout the year. CMT is everything that MTV could’ve been if they had stuck to music instead of branching off into bizarre reality and scripted shows.
-It was great to see a (very brief) cameo from one of our favorite artists, Cam, who showed up in the video package supporting Jennifer Nettles. Cam is one of the most creative singers and songwriters in county music today, but since her single “Burning House,” she’s been almost entirely ignored by country radio.
-It was also cool seeing the (formerly Dixie) Chicks back at a country music show, even if they weren’t there in person. The Chicks were at least nominated for Group Video of the Year.