Girls crush it: Women of country rule the CMAs with powerful, statement-making performances

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music

Women ruled the night Wednesday at the 53rd Country Music Association Awards, starting with Jennifer Nettles’s feminist fashion statement on the red carpet; co-hosts Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton’s sassy monologue; and, most thrillingly, an opening number starring a dozen fierce, fiery female country icons representing different generations, ranging from elder stateswoman Tanya Tucker and Crystal Gayle to Gretchen Wilson and Maren Morris.

Highlights of the historic, nine-minute opener included Underwood, McEntire, and Parton joining forces for the Trio album’s "Those Memories of You"; Tucker doing a swaggering version of her classic "Delta Dawn"; Gayle warbling "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" while sister Loretta Lynn watched from the audience; a tribute to Lynn of "You're Looking at Country” by Nettles and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman; and American supergroup the Highwomen (Morris, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires) tearing through delivering "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad. Wilson, Sara Evans, Martina McBride and Terri Clark also proudly performed their signature hits. 

“What do you call three women hosting the CMA? Your lucky night!” said Parton (who was the first solo female host of the CMAs, years ago), setting the tone for the celebratory evening. “We started out tonight concentrating on women doing something special, powerful, and beautiful — the women of country music, honoring them.”

As McEntire put it, “This year, we're putting the spotlight on our legends, the great ladies of today, and the up-and-comers changing the game. And we're doing it for all the little girls watching tonight, dreaming of ruling the world of country music — or maybe just ruling the world.”

Later in the evening, the new guard of female country trailblazers stole the show with a powerful medley, starting with Kelsea Ballerini’s raw, haunting, acoustic "Homecoming Queen” (a tear-jerking, modern-day lament about the evils of social media), which segued seamlessly , with the help of Lindsay Ell, into a lovely all-star performance of Little Big Town's 2015 Song and Single of the Year CMA winner, "Girl Crush,” that included Ashley McBryde, Carly Pearce, Maddie & Tae, and Runaway June.

In an era when women are struggling to get on country radio (we all remember when infamous radio consultant Keith Hill called female artists the “tomatoes” in country music’s salad, and a recent study shows that for every one woman on the airwaves, there are 44 men), and artists like Underwood, Morris, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and Trisha Yearwood have complained that something really needs to change, the CMAs’ woman-centric celebration definitely marked a step in the right direction.

Later, when Musgraves picked up her first win for Female Vocalist of the Year, she said in her speech, “I just want to say the female creative spirit, female energy, it's really needed right now. It's really important. And I feel like it's something that Earth needs. And so whether it's me that's up here or any of the other women in this category, it's a beautiful thing.”

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