The CMT Music Awards made a lively debut in Austin, Texas Sunday night, bringing its share of surprises, award upsets, social statements and unexpected pop culture crossovers. These are the moments that stuck with us after a loud, rowdy night at the Moody Center.
Jelly Roll savors the spotlight
“But country has Jelly Roll,” Ballerini added.
Cut to rapper/singer Jason DeFord – a.k.a. Jelly Roll – leaping to his feet and doffing his cap for the cheering crowd. The “Son of a Sinner” artist has won over countless audiences during his successful move into the country market over the past two years. He did the same with primetime viewers on Sunday, with arguably the most powerful performance of the night, and three wins, including Male Video of the Year.
“It may have looked like it was only 30 yards, but it took me 39 years to walk from over there and right here,” said DeFord, who served time in his teens and 20s for aggravated robbery and possession with intent to sell charges.
“…I don’t know what you’ve been through but I know you can overcome it. I promise you. You can be whatever you want to be.”
DeFord also gave his all during his cathartic performance of “Need a Favor,” complete with a gospel choir.
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Kelsea Ballerini does a prayer for ‘real action’ after Covenant shooting
The show didn’t open with a song, but an emotional message from country star and co-host Kelsea Ballerini, in the wake of last week’s school shooting in Nashville.
Speaking directly to the camera without an audience, Ballerini said the names of all six victims, who “walked into The Covenant School and didn’t walk out.”
“The community of sorrow over this, and the 130 mass shootings in the US this year alone, stretches from coast to coast,” she said.
“I wanted to personally stand up here and share this moment because on August 21 2008, I watched Ryan McDonald, my 15-year-old classmate at Central High School, lose his life to a gun in our cafeteria. Tonight’s broadcast is dedicated to the ever growing list of families, friends, survivors, witnesses, and responders whose lives continue to forever be changed by gun violence.”
“I pray deeply that the closeness and the community that we feel through the next few hours of music can soon turn into action, like real action, that moves us forward together to create change for the safety of our kids and our loved ones.”
Later in the show, Ballerini’s performance touched on another point of debate in Tennessee: she was joined on “If You Go Down, I’m Goin’ Down Too” by a quartet of drag performers.
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Wynonna Judd sings to her mother Naomi Judd
The 2022 CMT Music Awards marked the last time mother-and-daughter duo The Judds performed together on stage. Naomi Judd died by suicide weeks later. Her daughter, Wynonna, returned to the CMT stage to perform Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” alongside Ashley McBryde.
In the song’s final chorus, Judd looked above and sang, “Mama, you need to be here. And I miss you, and I love you, and I don’t understand.”
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Kane and Katelyn Brown win the top prize
Since 2007, Carrie Underwood has won CMT’s top (and fan-voted) prize — Video of the Year — 10 times. That includes winning the last four years straight, and after a full-throttle performance of “Hate My Heart” on Sunday’s show, it seemed like a safe bet she’d go home with No. 11.
Instead, the honor went to co-host Kane Brown and his wife, Katelyn, for their first released duet, “Thank God,” which the couple performed earlier that evening.
“When we recorded this song a year ago, I never would think that this was ever going to happen,” Katelyn Brown said.
“But I just want to say thank you so much to my amazing husband. I love you. This is so special that we get to share this together every night, and I love you so much.”
Shania Twain becomes Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘new bestie’
One of the night’s biggest crossover appearances came when rap superstar (and Texas native) Megan Thee Stallion took the stage to present her “new bestie” Shania Twain with the CMT Equal Play award.
The prize, which has only been awarded twice before goes to an artist who is a “visible and vocal advocate for elevating diverse and underrepresented voices in country music.”
Twain’s upcoming tour will have many female and Black country music artists as opening acts, including Ballerini, Lindsay Ell, Hailey Whitters, Breland, Robyn Ottolini, Priscilla Block and Mickey Guyton.
“I believe in an all-inclusive country music,” Twain said from the stage. “We’re family.”
Is ’90s rock the new ’90s country?
If you’re already having one iconic female rocker of the ’90s show up to play one of their biggest songs, why not have two? CMT’s logic turned out to be pretty sound Sunday night, with memorable appearances by Gwen Stefani and Alanis Morissette.
Stefani sang her breakout hit — No Doubt’s 1995 smash “Just a Girl” — with modern country star Carly Pearce, who has her share of successful “Girl” singles.
“[I’m’] nervous, it’s very out of my comfort zone,” Pearce said backstage Saturday ahead of rehearsals for the show. “I think we all know as an artist what Gwen Stefani is. It’s a very different artist from what Carly Pearce is. But I think we have a common thread in loving lyrics and loving songwriting.”
“Just a Girl” was fun, but Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” proved to be a better fit for the country world, with guests Ingrid Andress, Lainey Wilson, Madeline Edwards and Morgan Wade lending their distinct voices and leaning fully into the nostalgic thrill of it all.
An all-star tribute to Skynyrd
ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and guitar ace Warren Haynes joined Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash on stage for a super-sized Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute.
Celebrating 50 years of Synyrd’s debut album and commemorating the death of guitarist Gary Rossington, the performance featured the aforementioned pickers with country singer Cody Johnson, Allman Brothers keyboardist Chuck Leavell, Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers and “The Honkettes” — backing vocalists Wynonna Judd and Leann Rimes.
Together, this supergroup tackled two Skynyrd classics: “Simple Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Johnson, a road-worn Texas singer known for his rousing country shows, was raised on the words of late Skynyard singer Ronnie Van Zandt, he said backstage Saturday.
“He didn’t know me, we never met, but he raised me,” Johnson said. “To be on the stage with people like Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top and Slash? That’s a huge, huge honor.”
Rodgers was paying tribute to a late friend in Rossington, who died last month at age 71. The two grew close during Rogers’ days on stage in rock band Free, among his other career-spanning projects.
“Billy and Slash and Warren, they just melted together,” Rodgers said. “A very powerful sound.”
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