Even when Adele doesn’t show up — she can still turn up an awards show.
No doubt, the 2021 Country Music Association (CMA) Awards got a boost in buzz over the last couple of days from rumors swirling around social media that the 15-time Grammy winner was going to make a surprise appearance on Wednesday night to sing her current No. 1 hit “Easy on Me” with Chris Stapleton.
Of course, when you really think about it, what are the chances that Adele — known for her carefully calculated and closely guarded moves — would let slip a surprise performance on country music’s biggest night just four days before her heavily promoted “Adele One Night Only” special airs on a competing network? Try slim to none.
But even without Adele, it was still a big night for Stapleton, who not only won four awards — including album and single of the year, for his “Starting Over” LP and its title track — but performed twice at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
First, the neo-traditionalist dug into the bluesy heart of his single “Cold” and then he returned for an Aretha Franklin tribute with “Respect” star Jennifer Hudson — a medley of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” and Jimmie Davis’ “You Are My Sunshine” — that temporarily turned the CMAs into the Soul Train Awards. Unlike when Beyoncé did “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks in 2016, there was really nothing country about this performance — which felt more like J-Hud shamelessly, show-stoppingly campaigning for awards season — but her gospel-powered performance sure did put the holy spirit into those cowboy boots.
Hudson wasn’t the only black woman to shake up the predominantly white country establishment. Mickey Guyton — who, after becoming the first African-American woman to co-host the Academy of Country Music Awards in April, finally released her debut album, “Remember Her Name,” in September — rocked a supersize Afro for a statement performance of “Love My Hair.”
To make the whole thing even more of a moment, the song — which featured two other black female vocalists, Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards, accompanying Guyton — was introduced by its muse, Faith Fennidy, a young African-American student who was sent home from school in Louisiana because her braided hair violated school policy.
Another major moment occurred when Jimmie Allen became only the second black performer to ever win new artist of the year — after Darius Rucker 12 years ago — beating out Guyton, among others. Bringing the flashy fashion again, Allen later returned for a vibrant victory lap with a performance of “Freedom Was a Highway.”
Then there was another kind of country wokeness on display when Brothers Osborne singer TJ Osborne — who came out just nine months ago — kissed his boyfriend Abi Ventura for all of the crowd and all of the cameras to see after they won vocal duo of the year.
When the twosome sang “Younger Me” later in the show — with an emotional TJ saying, “I always felt, truthfully felt like it would never be possible because of my sexuality to be here” — it was an even bigger triumph than Luke Combs winning entertainer of the year.