Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

CMT Awards 2021: Doing the Work

By James Barker, Staff Writer

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Here I come again, covering another country music awards show (and hats off to Black Opry for live tweeting the event.) At this year’s CMT Awards, both the event organizers and artists made steps to represent the broad genre of country music in 2021, with Chris Stapleton using his platform to showcase H.E.R; Mickey Guyton performing with the legend that is Gladys Knight as well as Breland; and Brothers Osborne rocking the awards show in the way we’ve come to expect from them. 

In terms of the winners, it was a great night for women in country music, including wins for Carrie Underwood, Gabby Barrett, Little Big Town and Kelsea Ballerini. There were also some positive signs for BIPoC artists with Kane Brown winning two awards and John Legend winning the ultimate award of the night for Video of the Year (alongside Underwood). It was a shame that despite being nominated for two awards, Mickey Guyton did not win either. There is still work to do in terms of intersectionality.

However, the CMT seem to be actively addressing this, both in terms of the performance lineup on the show and the awards themselves, with the Equal Play Award being awarded to Linda Martell, a long overdue honor (check out Black Opry’s interview with Martell’s granddaughter). Even though to my knowledge, Brothers Osborne are the only openly LGBTQ+ act both nominated and performing, the CMT seem genuinely committed to being more inclusive and, crucially, delivering structural change.

In addition to LGBTQ+ representation, there is one observation I’d like to make about some of the songs that did well this year. Country music sometimes has a reputation of reifying traditional gender roles, and what scholars have described as “traditional morality”. This can sometimes lead LGBTQ+ listeners to feel excluded, but luckily for us there are often subversive elements for us to relate to.

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Barrett’s “The Good Ones” that won ‘Female Video of the Year’ in many ways exemplifies this, with its opening lines: “he’s a phone call to his parents/ he’s a Bible by the bed” setting him up to be the ideal, wholesome family man. In the video he’s depicted doing “manly things” such as sawing wood and carrying his wife while they walk. Barrett is a major talent and I do like the song, yet I can’t ignore how much this song reifies and romanticizes some of this hegemony. 

Lainey Wilson’s “Things A Man Oughta Know” (nominated for Breakthrough Video of the Year) is an interesting comparison. On the surface these same gendered standards stereotypes are in place with manhood and masculinity defined by the ability to ‘hook a trailer’; ‘shoot a shotgun’ and ‘change a tire’, yet the song and video (content warning: this features gun violence) subverts this by showing Wilson to be the one who does these things. 

The video goes a step further in critiquing these stereotypes as the husband’s inability to communicate his emotions lead to the happy heterosexual marriage unraveling. The depiction of financial struggle also is an interesting subversion and reminder of the kind of class critique that the country industry has tried to smooth out over the past 60 years. One thing’s for sure: “Things A Man Oughta Know” is a great song for 2021. 

The CMT Awards have more progressive potential than other country music award shows, in part because of their more open criteria that do not require country chart positions quite so rigidly, as Jada Watson has pointed out about the CMAs. Although in practice a number of the nominees are those that have charted with support from country radio. 

Yet the openness in its criteria suggests a willingness to address where it may be inadvertently excluding people. Here’s hoping that we will see more LGBTQ+ artists represented in future years!

Click here for a full list of winners.