Though many may have solely seen Jennifer Hudson's Aretha Franklin tribute at the 2021 CMA Awards as a crossover moment on national television for not just onstage collaborator Chris Stapleton but country music as a whole, the song selection culled directly from country's past while firmly establishing the genre's ties the Queen of Soul. Indeed, Hudson and Stapleton's performance was as rooted in country tradition as Brothers Osborne's earnest, truth-telling story-songs or any other highlight from Wednesday night's broadcast.
Works in recent years by such scholars and journalists as David Cantwell and Marcus K. Dowling thoroughly cover the influence of Nashville on Franklin and the mark Franklin's music made on Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and other pillars of country music. Keeping all of that in mind makes Hudson's appearance feel less like a plug for the Franklin biopic she stars in, Respect, and more like an ideal opportunity to celebrate how country roots have intertwined over the years with those of soul and Black gospel.
— Jennifer Hudson (@IAMJHUD) November 11, 2021
On the same night he took home three trophies (Song of the Year, Single of the Year and Album of the Year) for Starting Over and its title track and won Male Vocalist of the Year for the fifth time in seven years, Stapleton brought his guitar and emotive tenor vocals to the collaborative performance. Both intertwined beautifully with Hudson's soaring soprano voice across two songs credited to country music legends.
First came "Night Life," a song written by Willie Nelson in the late '50s and sold for $150 so the struggling songwriter could make ends meet for his family. It'd go on to be recorded by both country (Ray Price) and soul (Franklin) icons across Nelson's transformation in the '60s and '70s from starving artist to national treasure.
The two-song medley concluded with "You Are My Sunshine." Country artist turned Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis helped make the sunshiny tune part of the great American songbook. Though Davis is sometimes credited as one of the song's writers, its true composer likely sold him the copyright in the '30s or '40s. Singing cowboy Gene Autry, Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Charles, folk great Woody Guthrie and other pop culture powerhouses played a role in making the song ubiquitous en route to Franklin's discography.
Stapleton and his wife Morgane are no strangers to "You Are My Sunshine." They recorded their own soulful take on the song for Dave Cobb's Southern Family project.