NASHVILLE, Tenn. — “Son of a Sinner” singer Jelly Roll was the big winner at the CMT Music Awards, as the rapper-turned-country singer took home three awards on Sunday as an outsider who won over fans with his confessional songs.
The tattooed singer got emotional during the show in Austin, Texas, which aired on CBS, as he thanked the country radio industry for its acceptance and shouted out to those who felt like him.
“You can be whatever you want to be. I promise you that. I told them that I wanted to be a country singer and I am standing here at the CMT Awards with the male video of the year, baby,” he shouted.
Earlier in the night, he brought a choir out for his prayer-themed song “Need a Favor” and got the crowd to raise their hands to the roof.
The show started off with a somber tone as country singer and co-host Kelsea Ballerini read off the names of six victims of a school shooting killed Monday in Nashville, Tennessee. She noted how she shared their pain, explaining that in 2008 she witnessed a school shooting in her hometown high school cafeteria in Knoxville and prayed for “real action” that would protect children and families. Earlier in the evening, country artists wore black ribbons on the red carpet to honor victims of the shooting.
But the show prioritized nostalgia overall as performances merged rock, blues and country straight from the heart of Texas, mixing in tributes and covers alongside newer artists and fan-favorite hit songs.
Country superstar and five-time Grammy winner Shania Twain was given the Equal Play Award, recognizing her for being a “visible and vocal advocate” for diverse voices in country music. Texas native and Grammy-winning rapper Megan Thee Stallion introduced Twain and the pair danced and hugged to Twain’s hit, “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.”
The lyrics to the song became an undercurrent to a decades-long career of advocacy, Twain said.
“I promise I will continue to champion the many outstanding country artists that are not currently played, they are not currently streamed, toured, signed or awarded at the level they deserve,” Twain said. “I believe in an all-inclusive country music.”
Lainey Wilson won twice with female video of the year for “Heart Like a Truck” and collaborative video of the year for “Wait in the Truck” with HARDY.
“My heart is ‘bout to beat right out my chest, I’ll be honest with y’all,” Wilson said after winning female video of the year, calling the hit song an anthem for surviving the “scratches, the dents and the bumps along the way.”
Co-host Kane Brown took home the last award of the night with his wife, Katelyn, winning video of the year for their duet, “Thank God.”
“This is all so new to me. And when we recorded this song a year ago, I never in my life would ever think this was ever going to happen,” Katelyn Brown said.
Later in the show Ballerini took to the stage flanked by drag artists, as states across the country consider legally limiting drag show performances. The Tennessee native sang “If You Go Down (I’m Going Down Too)” and danced with Kennedy Davenport, Jan Sport, Manila Luzon and Olivia Lux, all stars of the show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Tennessee was the first state to place strict limits on drag show performances, which were set to take effect this month. The law has been temporarily blocked after a lawsuit was filed earlier this week.
Collaborations took center stage for most of the three-hour show. Country Music Hall of Famer Wynonna Judd and Ashley McBryde performed a cover of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love is” while heavy fog rolled over the stage and into the crowd.
Pop singer Stefani performed her No Doubt mid-1990s pop-punk hit “Just a Girl” alongside country singer Carly Pearce. Rocker Alanis Morissette brought more of the ‘90s rock to the stage with a group performance of “You Oughta Know” featuring Wilson, Ingrid Andress, Madeline Edwards and Morgan Wade.
Carrie Underwood, the most-awarded artist in CMT history with 25 awards, performed “Hate My Heart” as fireworks lit up the Austin night. Four-time Grammy winner Clark Jr. performed a tribute to the late Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn at the top of the show.
Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd were honored with a tribute performance following the death in March of the last original member, Gary Rossington. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Slash of Guns N’ Roses and the Allman Brothers’ Warren Haynes and Chuck Leavell wrapped the show with singers Paul Rodgers and Cody Johnson and backup vocals from LeAnn Rimes and Judd.