The 56th annual CMA Awards have come and gone and now that the dust has settled and Peyton Manning's punchlines have mostly fallen flat, we're here to reflect on the spectacle that is Country Music's Biggest Night™.
We've rounded up our favorite — and least favorite — aspects of the 56th Annual CMA Awards, from Lainey Wilson's big night to a glaring omission.
Best: '90s Country Legends Take the Spotlight
Sure, we all know modern country artists just love talking about '90s country and I love that for them. I too was raised on CMT and The Nashville Network (real ones know) and spend copious amounts of time scouring eBay and Etsy for Pam Tillis and Patty Loveless t-shirts. Country music of the '90s is having such a moment that the "Watermelon Crawl" is probably seconds away from becoming a TikTok trend. (Maybe it already is?) But how often do the legends that inspired Millennial country artists get to share the spotlight outside of a well-placed namedrop? Not often enough if you ask me!
Well, thankfully that all changed at this year's CMA Awards. First, in a very meta moment, we had Jo Dee Messina make a surprise appearance during Cole Swindell's performance of "She Had Me at Heads Carolina," a song about a guy who loves '90s country so much that he falls in love with a girl who karaokes Messina's "Heads Carolina, Tails California." (Relatable!)
And in one of the night's most emotional moments, Alan Jackson got his well-deserved flowers in the form of tributes from the next generation of country greats and the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, making the Class of '89 stalwart just the eighth artist to receive the honor.
But the highlight of the night was certainly Patty Loveless — an icon in any decade — who shared the stage with Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton to perform the heart-wrenching "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive." The performance came just weeks after the trio performed the song at Kentucky Rising, a benefit concert which raised over $2.5 million to support flood relief in Eastern Kentucky. Yet again, Stapleton, a coal miner's son, had Loveless, another famous coal miner's daughter, take her rightful place center stage, leading the audience in the powerful miner's prayer. Loveless is deeply missed on country radio and the touring circuit, but that voice still has the power to shake us all to our core.
— Bobbie Jean Sawyer
Best: Memorable Rock Tributes by Country Artists
The historic and evergreen overlaps between country and rock got amplified in two of the night's best collaborations.
Consummate showperson Elle King and the Black Keys honored recently-departed rock and country hall of famer Jerry Lee Lewis with a fiery —figuratively and literally — take on The Killer's first No. 1 country hit, "Great Balls of Fire." King fervently played an engulfed-in-flames piano while howling her way through a well-executed nod to what Lee's generation would've dismissed as the devil's music.
The Rolling Stones got honored, as well, with Brothers Osborne joining the War and Treaty to preview forthcoming countrified Stones covers album Stoned Cold Country. "It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)" was an apt choice for the makeshift quartet, with War and Treaty member Tanya Trotter's Tina Turner-inspired dress adding another layer to the classic rock-honoring presentation.
— Bobby Moore
Best: Loretta Lynn Tributes
The show opened with Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire and Miranda Lambert speeding down a road paved by Loretta Lynn with a medley of the late country legend's best-known songs. The trio then sang "Coal Miner's Daughter" together to cap off one of the best CMA Awards opening segments in recent memory. As an added bonus, McEntire readopted her tour look from 1995 via a green-fringed top.
Later in the broadcast, Carly Pearce celebrated a fellow Kentuckian in Lynn with a heartfelt performance of her original ode to her honky-tonk hero, "Dear Miss Loretta." She was joined by another home state legend, Ricky Skaggs, and a third bluegrass great and Grand Ole Opry member, Sonya Isaacs.
In all, the CMAs did a fine job honoring the legacy of the first woman to ever win Entertainer of the Year.
— Bobby Moore
Worst: No Naomi Judd Tribute
One of the night's highlights came when Wynonna Judd got a chance to speak about her late mother, Naomi Judd, before presenting Brothers Osborne with the 2022 Vocal Duo of the Year award.
Still, there's no excuse for the lack of any sort of tribute performance for Naomi and The Judds — a Country Music Hall of Fame-inshrined group that won nine CMA awards. As the recently-ended first leg of The Judds' Final Tour repeatedly proved, someone like Ashley McBryde could've stolen the show alongside Wynonna while doing one of The Judds' classic justice.
Even an in memorandum video could've given more due to not just Naomi but also Bobbie Nelson, Mickey Gilley and other legends lost since the previous CMA broadcast.
— Bobby Moore
Best: Maren Morris Attends After All
If we didn't know before, this year has proven that Maren Morris is one of country music's greatest ambassadors. She released one of the best albums of the year with the CMA-nominated Humble Quest and has continued to be outspoken on issues of racial disparity in country music and transphobia.
"There's a very insidious culture of people feeling very comfortable being transphobic and homophobic and racist, and that they can wrap it in a joke and no one will ever call them out for it," Morris told the LA Times. "It just becomes normal for people to behave like that."
Her willingness to use her platform for good has led to her much publicized feud with Brittany Aldean over transphobic comments and Fox News' Tucker Carlson calling her a "lunatic country music person." Morris has been quick to put the focus on LGBTQ+ issues, even turning Carlson's insult into a t-shirt and raising over $100,000 for GLAAD's Transgender Media Program and Trans Lifeline.
So when she told the LA Times in September that she was contemplating skipping the CMAs entirely because she no longer felt comfortable going, it was understandable. But Morris did show up; in a move reminiscent of Florence Pugh skipping a press junket amid the disastrous Don't Worry Darling press tour only to be spotted nearby strolling with an Aperol spritz, Morris avoided the red carpet and posted a video of herself walking backstage, looking completely unbothered, booze in hand, set to Taylor Swift's "Karma."
BYOB, CMA. ? pic.twitter.com/s5GZF6ssgy
— MAREN MORRIS (@MarenMorris) November 10, 2022
Maren's in her Miss Flo era and we love to see it. More importantly, her visibility as a country artist devoted to making sure every country fan feels safe at her shows is especially important at a time when anti-trans laws are on the rise. While we'd have loved to see her take the stage on CMA night, sometimes a well-timed Taylor Swift video sends the message loud and clear.
— Bobbie Jean Sawyer
Best: Lainey Wilson's Big Night
Lainey Wilson entered the 2022 CMA Awards with the buzz that comes with a record-tying six nominations. Throw in a recent album release and a forthcoming role on popular TV series Yellowstone, and she seemed like the closest thing country music had to a future superstar shoo-in.
Her status as the future got confirmed with a New Artist of the Year win over this stacked field: Cody Johnson, Hardy, Parker McCollum and Walker Hayes. Yet amazingly, that feat wasn't her ceiling. The future became the present before the end of the night, with Wilson getting crowned as Female Vocalist of the Year, which put her in the same rare air as some of the most revered women in the genre's history.
— Bobby Moore