Teary-eyed and shaking onstage, breakthrough singer Lainey Wilson won entertainer of the year at the CMA Awards — solidifying her spot as the darling of country music and potential multiple Grammy nominee, which will be unveiled Friday.
Wilson beat out Chris Stapleton, Carrie Underwood, Morgan Wallen and last year’s champ, Luke Combs, to win the top honor on Wednesday night.
“This is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s the only thing I know how to do,” the 31-year-old said at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville after winning five honors. “I’ve been in this town for 12 and-a-half years and it finally feels like country music is starting to love me back.”
Wilson won her second consecutive female vocalist of the year honor and her fourth album, Bell Bottom Country, was named album of the year. And the murder ballad “wait in the truck,” her collaboration with Hardy, won music video of the year and musical event of the year. Speaking to the young women watching and in the audience, Wilson said: “I’m getting up every single day and I am looking at myself in the mirror saying, ‘I am beautiful. I am smart. I am talented. I am Godly. I am fearless.’ If somebody tells me I can’t do it — hold my beer, watch this.”
Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” helped Combs ride off with two wins including single of the year, while Chapman — who wrote the 1988 classic alone — won song of the year, becoming one of the rare Black artists to win a CMA Award.
“First and foremost, I want to thank Tracy Chapman for writing one of the best songs of all-time,” Combs said. “I just recorded it because I loved the song so much. It’s meant so much to me throughout my entire life. It’s [my] first favorite song that I ever had from the time I was four years old.”
Combs’ version of “Fast Car” peaked at No. 2 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart and spent four weeks on top of the country charts. Chapman’s original peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100 and won her the best female pop vocal performance Grammy — and the song is expected to help Combs land major nominations when the Grammys reveal its nominations Friday.
Chapman, 59, didn’t attend the CMAs, but presenters read a speech she wrote after “Fast Car” collected song of the year: “I’m sorry I couldn’t join you all tonight but it’s truly an honor for my song to be newly recognized after 35 years of its debut.”
Other Black artists shined during the awards show, too. The War & Treaty — nominated for vocal duo of the year — earned a standing ovation for their powerhouse vocal performance of “That’s How Love Is Made.” At the song’s end, Combs put his red cup in the air, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban clapped in awe, and Jelly Roll held his hands together like he was praying in church.
Grammy, Emmy and Tony winner Cynthia Erivo turned heads when she sang some of “I Will Always Love You” before presenting vocal group of the year. “Country music spreads far and wide, from Dolly to Whitney,” the English performer said. And R&B singer K. Michelle, who is working on her debut country music album, closed the three-hour show in honor of the Judds alongside Jelly Roll.
Dan + Shay also impressed with “Save Me the Trouble,” as Shay knee slid on the stage like a crooner and sang with power and skill; Kelsea Ballerini strummed her guitar and gave an emotional performance of “Leave Me Again” that also earned her a standing ovation; Alan Jackson and a shoeless Zac Brown, in short shorts, won over the audience as they paid tribute to Jimmy Buffett with “Margaritaville”; male vocalist of the year Stapleton’s two performances only made fans want to see him a third time; and Wilson proved why she was the night’s top nominee and winner with a stunning performance of “Wildflowers and Wild Horses.”
Multi-genre artist Jelly Roll kicked off the CMAs with “Need a Favor,” and he was joined by Wynonna Judd, who held onto Jelly Roll while she sang with conviction and strength. They were also backed by a powerful choir.
Jelly Roll, who has found recent success in country music but has blended sounds from rock to rap, won new artist of the year — 20 years after he self-released his first mixtape.
“There is something poetic about a 39-year-old man winning new artist of the year. I don’t know where you’re at in your life or what you’re going through, but I want to tell you to keep going, baby. I want to tell you [that] success is on the other side of it. I want to tell you [that] it’s going to be OK,” he rattled passionately like a preacher. “Because what’s in front of you is so much more important than what’s behind you.”
Old Dominion won vocal group of the year for a sixth time and Brothers Osborne matched the feat in the vocal duo of the year category. John Osborne said growing up he was a nerd but winning at the CMAs “make me feel like a cool kid every year.”
Wallen, who continues to have pop star-like success on the pop and country charts, only earned three nominations but didn’t take home any awards. He performed “Man Made a Bar” with Eric Church and honored Joe Diffie alongside Hardy and Post Malone with performances of “John Deere Green” and “Pickup Man.”
Peyton Manning and Luke Bryan — who performed a medley of his hits — explained that they returned as hosts because “Travis and Taylor weren’t available.”
“Luke, you know the difference between Taylor Swift and the New York Jet?” Manning asked. “Taylor can sell out a stadium,” Bryan replied to laughs.