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The CMT Music Awards 2023 had seven memorable moments, including a tribute to Naomi Judd

The CMT Music Awards debuted in Austin, Texas on Sunday night, bringing surprises, award upsets, social statements, and surprising pop-culture crossovers. These are the memories we have from a raucous night at the Moody Center.

Jelly Roll enjoys the limelight

During his opening monologue alongside co-host Kelsea Ballerini, Kane Brown quipped, “Rock has Post Malone.”

“But the country has Jelly Roll,” remarked Ballerini.

Skip to rapper/singer Jason DeFord, a.k.a. Jelly Roll, springing to his feet and doffing his cap to the delight of the audience. Throughout his successful shift into the country market over the last two years, the “Son of a Sinner” musician has won over innumerable audiences. On Sunday, he accomplished the same with primetime audiences, with probably the night’s most powerful performance and three prizes, including Male Video of the Year.

“It may have appeared to be only 30 yards, but it took me 39 years to go from over there to right here,” said DeFord, who spent time in prison in his teens and twenties for aggravated robbery and possession with intent to sell.

“… I’m not sure what you’ve been through, but I know you can get through it. I guarantee it. You are free to be whoever you choose to be.”

DeFord gave it his all during his emotional rendition of “Need a Favor,” which included a gospel choir.

After the Covenant shoot, Kelsea Ballerini prays for “serious action”

In the aftermath of last week’s school massacre in Nashville, country artist and co-host Kelsea Ballerini delivered an impassioned statement.

Without an audience, Ballerini spoke straight to the camera, naming all six victims who “walked into The Covenant School and didn’t walk out.”

“The outpouring of grief over this, and the 130 mass shootings in the United States this year alone, spreads from coast to coast,” she said.

“I wanted to personally stand here and share this moment because on August 21, 2008, Ryan McDonald, my 15-year-old Central High School classmate, was killed by a gun in our cafeteria. Tonight’s show is devoted to the ever-growing number of families, friends, survivors, bystanders, and responders whose lives have been irrevocably altered by gun violence.”

“I hope that the connection and community that we feel during the next few hours of the song will soon translate into action, like genuine action, that drives us ahead together to achieve change for the safety of our children and loved ones.”

Later in the evening, Ballerini’s performance touched on another topic of contention in Tennessee: she was joined by a quartet of drag performers on “If You Go Down, I’m Goin’ Down Too.”

Wynonna Judd performs a song for her mother, Naomi Judd

The Judds, a mother-daughter duet, last performed on stage at the CMT Music Awards in 2022. Naomi Judd committed suicide a few weeks later. Wynonna returned to the CMT stage with her daughter to perform Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” with Ashley McBryde.

At the final chorus of the song, Judd glanced up and sang, “Mother, you must be present. And I miss you, I love you, and I don’t get it.”

Kane and Katelyn Brown take home the grand prize

Carrie Underwood has received CMT’s top (and fan-voted) award, Video of the Year, ten times since 2007. That includes four years in a row, and following a full-throttle performance of “Hate My Heart” on Sunday’s ceremony, it felt like a fair bet she’d take home No. 11.

Instead, co-host Kane Brown and his wife, Katelyn, received the award for their first released duet, “Thank God,” which they performed earlier that evening.

“I never thought this would happen a year ago when we recorded this song,” Katelyn Brown remarked.

“But I’d like to express my heartfelt gratitude to my wonderful hubby. I adore you. It’s so amazing that we get to do this together every night, and I adore you.”

Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘new bestie’ is Shania Twain

One of the night’s biggest crossover appearances came when rap sensation (and Texas native) Megan Thee Stallion visited the stage to deliver the CMT Equal Play award to her “new bestie” Shania Twain.

The award is given to an artist who is a “visible and vocal advocate for elevating diverse and marginalized voices in country music.” It has only been given twice before.

Several female and Black country music musicians will open for Twain on his forthcoming tour, including Ballerini, Lindsay Ell, Hailey Whitters, Breland, Robyn Ottolini, Priscilla Block, and Mickey Guyton.

“I believe in all-inclusive country music,” Twain remarked onstage. “We’re like family.”

Is ’90s rock becoming the new ’90s country?

Why not have two renowned female rockers from the 1990s perform one of their biggest songs if you already have one? Gwen Stefani and Alanis Morissette made memorable debuts on CMT Sunday night, proving CMT’s logic to be correct.

Stefani sang her breakout song, No Doubt’s 1995 smash “Just a Girl,” with modern country star Carly Pearce, who has had her fair share of “Girl” single success.

“I’m nervous, it’s completely out of my comfort zone,” Pearce remarked backstage Saturday before the show’s preparations began. “I believe we all know who Gwen Stefani is as an artist. It’s a completely different artist than Carly Pearce. Yet, I believe we share a passion for lyrics and songwriting.”

“You Oughta Know,” with guests Ingrid Andress, Lainey Wilson, Madeline Edwards, and Morgan Wade giving their different voices and diving fully into the nostalgic excitement of it all, proved to be a better fit for the country world.

A homage to Skynyrd by all-stars

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and guitar legend Warren Haynes joined Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash on stage for a massive Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute.

The performance, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Synyrd’s debut album and the death of guitarist Gary Rossington, featured the aforementioned pickers alongside country singer Cody Johnson, Allman Brothers keyboardist Chuck Leavell, Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers, and “The Honkettes” — backing vocalists Wynonna Judd and Leann Rimes.

This supergroup covered two iconic Skynyrd songs: “Simple Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Johnson, a road-worn Texas singer famed for his energetic country gigs, said backstage Saturday that he was raised on the words of late Skynyrd vocalist Ronnie Van Zandt.

“He didn’t know who I was, we’d never met, yet he reared me,” Johnson explained. “To share the stage with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Slash? That is a tremendous honor.”

Rodgers was at Rossington to pay tribute to a late friend who died last month at the age of 71. During Rogers’ time on stage with the rock band Free, among other ventures, the two became friends.

“Billy, Slash, and Warren simply melted together,” Rodgers explained. “A very strong sound.”

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