7 Can’t-Miss Moments from the 2021 CMT Awards

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Wednesday night’s (June 9) CMT Awards, like most awards shows, were much more about performances than awards with the fast-paced 2 1/2 hour ceremony filled wall-to-wall with appearances by artists from various locales in middle Tennessee.

From high-octane barnburners to low-key heartbreakers, the show’s 20 performances showcased country music’s range and highlighted some unlikely pairings.

Kane Brown may have taken home the most awards with two new trophies to add to his shelf, but there were plenty of winning performances.

Here are seven unranked can’t miss moments:

Chris Stapleton, “Arkansas”
Performing from a huge stage set up Bonnaroo farm —Stapleroo or Chrisapalooza anyone?— Stapleton channeled Bob Seger’s “Katmandu” with this driving tune about road tripping (and escaping) from current album, Starting Over. Stapleton was in peak growl form, with wife Morgane sounding great as ever on backing vocals. As the lyrics state, it looked like Stapleton was “havin’ so much fun that it’s probably a little bit against the law.” If this one didn’t make you miss live concerts, nothing will.

Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert and Jon Randall, “Tequila Does”
Sitting around a campfire, the trio performed a stripped down version of the drinking song from their new very lo-fi album, The Marfa Tapes. It’s a reminder that a good song and a great voice don’t need anything more than acoustic guitar accompaniment. No dressing up with flashy dancers or fancy stage production required — just talent.

Luke Combs, “Cold As You”
Instead of performing his most recent No. 1, the ultra romantic “Forever After All,” Combs went the opposite direction with this treat also from the deluxe version of What You See Is What You Get. Bitterness and heartbreak are always a good combo platter for a country song and lines don’t come much country-er than “this broke heart fool on an old bar stool/drinkin’beer almost as cold as you.” He performed the same song on the CMT Awards seven months ago, but, like cold beer, it’s impossible to get enough of this tune.

Brothers Osborne and Dierks Bentley, “Lighten Up”
Former tour mates and duet partners on “Burning Man,” the brothers and Bentley reunited for “Lighten Up,” from Brothers Osborne’s excellent album, Skeletons. From John Osborne’s swampy guitar licks to the double entendre lyrics— at various points “Lighten Up” refers to anything from lighting up in the car and passing it around to elevating your mood in a world gone crazy– this rave-up helped keep the party going.

Breland, Mickey Guyton and Gladys Knight, “Cross Country” and “Friendship Train”
If you want to see what the future of country looks like look no further than Breland, who is duetting with everyone from Keith Urban to Tiera, Chase Rice, Lauren Alaina and Guyton these days. Breland and Guyton recreated “Cross Country” from his recent EP, and they were delivering a mission statement as much as a song when they sang, “I know its okay to be in my own lane/when I‘m doing what they said can’t be done.” The two trailblazers’ gorgeous voices floated over the notes and just when it seemed like the performance couldn’t rise higher, Guyton brought out a radiant Gladys Knight to perform Gladys Knight & The Pips’ 1969 No. 2 R&B hit, “Friendship Train.” The song’s unifying lyrics are just as relevant today as 50 years ago.

Needtobreathe and Carrie Underwood, “I Wanna Remember”
The rock band and Underwood performed NTB’s new single with Bear Rinehart and Underwood’s vocals intertwining like leather and lace. The love song about wanting to remember an especially romantic moment felt particularly poignant as we head into a summer where new memories will be made after putting dreams on hold for more than a year. It was just one of many strong genre- and gender-blending performances including Kelsea Ballerini and Paul Klein’s melancholic “I Quit Drinking” and Ingrid Andress and JP Saxe’s heartwarming “Like That.”

H.E.R. and Chris Stapleton, “Hold On”
Let’s face it, Stapleton elevates every song he’s on and his performance with H.E.R. on the Oscar winner’s “Hold On” ran a close second to his stunning duet with Justin Timberlake on “Tennessee Whiskey/Drink You Away” on the 2015 CMA Awards. It wasn’t a particularly polished performance, but it was an emotionally loaded one, with a bluesy, down-and-dirty vibe. Stapleton has a voice that will put a new part in your hair and H.E.R. delivers again and again. Their expressive voices together, especially when Stapleton went into falsetto, and their heavy guitar licks left us wanting a lot more.

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