Despite the outside noise and unexpected showtime turns, the most popular songs of the year and some cool cross-genre collaborations were able to steal back the spotlight before all was said and done.
On a night that saw both top nominee Maren Morris (four nominations, tied with Miranda Lambert for most) and Gabby Barrett back out of performing at the CMT Music Awards the day before, citing a scheduling conflict and personal reasons on social media, respectively, there was reason to be worried.
Barrett would take home the Female Video of the Award for "The Good Ones" with presenter, legend Gladys Knight, accepting on her behalf.
Luckily, on the performance side, Ingrid Andress swooped in to replace Morris and partner with JP Saxe to perform "Line by Line," while Lindsey Ell jumped onstage with Lady A and Carly Pearce in Barret's stead to open the proceedings with "Like a Lady."
When all was said and done, Carrie Underwood and John Legend took home the big prize for Video of the Year for "Hallelujah."
"Thank you so much fans, you guys, you're the reason we're all here doing what we love and making music videos," said Underwood.
But it was a night also preceded by outside issues with the third round of pro-Morgan Wallen billboard buying in Nashville. Similar to efforts preceding the ACM and Billboard Awards, the purchase was made by those who believe the singer has been punished enough for using a racial slur against African Americans in an online video last year.
But once the show got underway, that too was overshadowed. During the ceremony, time was taken to recognize African American Country Music trailblazer Linda Martell, who during the racially tense late 1960s became the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry. Martell was presented with CMT's Equal Play Award.
Some believe Martell, who left her recording contract after business disputes with her managers and initially retired from music in 1974, was blacklisted from the industry as her career began to blossom.
"When I was growing up I didn't hear Black women on country radio, I didn't see Black women performing country music on television and to this day only one Black woman has ever made the top 20 country airplay charts and that was all the way back in 1969 ..." said country singer Mickey Guyton. "... Congratulations Linda, we love you so much. I would not be standing here today without you and none of us would be here without you. So thank you, thank you, thank you."
Guyton would go on to deliver a meaningful and lighthearted duet of "Friendship Train" with soul legend Knight.
Martell helped blaze the trail for artists like Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen and second year co-host Kane Brown, who last year became the first African American to host the event and this year took home male video of the year for "Worship You" and collaborative video of the year with Chris Young for "Famous Friends"
This year he teamed with newcomer Kelsea Ballerini, who took home the award for best performance for her duet with Halsey on "The Other Girl" during the 2020 CMT Awards on a similarly big night that also saw her premiere a new poppy ballad duet with Paul Klein called "I Quit Drinking" that brought in the rain.
"After the performance last year there was a lot of like chatter on categorically what genre that song did or didn't fit into," said Ballerini. "The fact that you voted it as the winning performance tells me that you know where my roots are and who I am, but it also tells me you hear music as music and it also tells me you love to see people push boundaries for their artistry."
Chris Stapleton rocked Bonaroo Farm with "Arkansas," as did Dierks Bentley and The Brothers Osborne with "Lighten Up." Stapleton would get his raspy soul on later with R&B singer and blues guitarist H.E.R. on "Hold On." Underwood and NEEDTOBREATHE would knock it out of the park at the venue with a pitch perfect and powerful performance of "I Wanna Remember."
Luke Combs tore down Nashville's Assembly Hall with "Cold As You."
And Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall brought us back to simpler times with an intimate campfire performance of "Tequilla Does."
Andress also impressed with her unique voice and accent on "Lady Like" amid flowers atop the Graduate in downtown Nashville, joined by Saxe for a duet of "Like That."
2021 CMT Award Winners
Video of the Year
Carrie Underwood with John Legend - “Hallelujah”
Duo/Group Video of the Year
Little Big Town - “Wine, Beer, Whiskey”
Male Video of the Year
Kane Brown - “Worship You”
Female Video of the Year
Gabby Barrett - “The Good Ones”
Breakthrough Video of the Year
Dylan Scott - “Nobody”
Collaborative Video of the Year
Chris Young and Kane Brown - “Famous Friends”
Performance of the Year
2020 CMT Music Awards - Kelsea Ballerini and Halsey “The Other Girl”