Roots Rising at 2021 CMA Awards: Luke Combs, Chris Stapleton, Carly Pearce & Brothers Osborne Get Real, Win Big

Luke Combs
Terry Wyatt/Getty Images
– Luke Combs
performs during the 55th Annual Country Music Association Awards at Bridgestone Arena on November 10, 2021 in Nashville.
Maybe not since Alison Krauss swept “The CMA Awards” with her version of Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing at All” has the Nashville community lined up behind artistic integrity – and the kind of music that isn’t injection-molded for radio-friendliness. Beyond “Happy Uptempo Positive,” roots/soul country icon Chris Stapleton took six awards, including his fifth Male Vocalist, Album, Song and Single for “Starting Over,” hard jamming country Brothers Osborne for Duo, and progressive traditionalist Carly Pearce who took Female Vocalist.
Hard-charging newcomer Luke Combs, who many thought would take the award two years ago, took the night’s top award: Entertainer of the Year. The North Carolinian Everyguy* embodies that independent notion of making music on his terms, outside the conventional Music Row mandates, but with strong roots that extend to Opry membership, working people and nine aspiring songwriters who had their first #1 as part of his juggernaut.
Madeline Edwards, Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer
Terry Wyatt/Getty Images
– Madeline Edwards, Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer
perform during the 55th annual Country Music Association awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 10, 2021 in Nashville.
At a time when country music has been plagued by scandals involving racism, sexism and homophobia, “The 2021 Country Music Association” created more moments of inclusion and even a jot of the unthinkable. As TJ Osborne, whose performance of “Younger Me” addressed being a closeted gay teenager, kissed his (male) date on the mouth, it was obvious Hank hadn’t done it that way; but this was a new day and the beginning of a reckoning five or six years in the making.
Mickey Guyton, joined by Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards, were introduced by Faith Fennidy, who’d been sent home from school after being informed her braids were distracting. “Love My Hair” not only celebrated Black women’s glorious tresses, but the slice of life song – inspired by Guyton hearing Fennidy’s story on the news — suggests it’s in the differences we are all the most special we can be.
Jennifer Hudson, fresh off her tour du force at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction performance for Carole King, blistered the Bridgestone Arena with a hard gospel reading of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life.” Joined by Stapleton, the performance morphed into “You Are My Sunshine” to create a masterclass in the intersection points and common ground between classic soul, church music, Allman Brothers’ style Southernism and roots country.

Miranda Lambert
Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)
– Miranda Lambert
performs during the 55th annual Country Music Association awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 10, 2021 in Nashville.
Dierks Bentley’s “Beer’s On Me” suggested the same communal musical ground. The oft-bluegrassing star enlisted urban cowboy Breland and country/metal hybrider HARDY to deliver a song about getting to the coming together and relinquishing the things that bring us down.
Indeed, Jimmie Allen took home New Artist. The wildly likable Marylander spoke of spending his last $100 to come to Nashville to see Charley Pride on “The CMA’s 50th,” living in his car and performing with Pride on last year’s telecast. His performance of “Freedom Was A Highway” took a breezy country song, but swept it up with dance moves that evoked Michael Jackson in his own emergence.
Whether it was Blake Shelton’s redneck bona fides “Come Back As A Country Boy,” Miranda Lambert’s show-opening medley of “Gunpowder & Lead,” “Bluebird,” “Little Red Wagon,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and more packed a she-power wallop that staggered or Eric Church’s lean rocking “Heart On Fire,” the fire and intensity that’s driven Hank Williams, Jr, Waylon Jennings, David Allen Coe and Johnny Cash was on full display.
So was the gratitude for those who came before. Accepting Song of the Year for “Starting Over,” co-writer Mike Henderson, the guitarist/artist in his own rite, invoked Gary Nicholson, John Hadley, Wally Wilson and Kevin Welch for showing him what great songs were made of. Backstage after the live telecast ended, the shy Stapleton explained that he’s written as many songs with Henderson as anyone, and that art was passed on through these kinds of writers.
Chris Stapleton and Jennifer Hudson
Terry Wyatt/Getty Images
– Chris Stapleton and Jennifer Hudson
perform during the 55th Annual Country Music Association Awards at Bridgestone Arena on November 10, 2021 in Nashville.
The idea of doing it for the quality instead of the commodity underscored many of the winners’ best moments. Whether Carly Pearce, who mined personal loss and heartache for her Album of the Year nominated 29, sobbing onstage, saying “This is all I ever wanted… Country music saved my life at a time when I really needed it…” or incoming Country Music Hall of Famer proudly saluting the stage as he was presented to the crowd, it was a night of lifers.
For Entertainer of the Year Combs, that truth defined his performance. “Do It Anyway” measured a life that would follow music, whether success meant local bars, long van rides and burning the CDs sold at gigs or talking to critics wanting to know “what would you do if you didn’t do this…”
Carly Pearce
Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)
– Carly Pearce
accepts the award for Female Vocalist of the Year during the 55th annual Country Music Association awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 10, 2021 in Nashville
Clearly staggered when the iconic Alan Jackson called his name – after explaining there’s no feeling like it, like winning an award that’s been taken home by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and – Combs suggested that every single person nominated deserved to win, dedicated the award to every single person in this room and admitted not planning speeches “is clearly not working out for me right now.”
Genuine. Real. Elbows and raw seams. When country music is at its best, it’s something actual people can inhabit. If the post-BroCountry Nashville is trying to find its way, this year’s awards suggest perhaps we should just follow these leaders.