Country Icons Toast the CMA Awards’ 50th Anniversary!

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Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood perform onstage at the 45th annual CMA Awards
Jason Kempin/WireImage

For being half a century old, the Country Music Association Awards still look damn fine. The event’s golden anniversary special promises to be packed with memories, legendary musical team-ups and all the ten-gallon good times fans have come to expect from country’s biggest night.

“It’s such an opportunity,” says Vince Gill, who’s hosted the kudosfest a record 12 times. Gill calls it “a three-hour primetime television show where we get to put our best foot forward.” This year, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley (above) return for their ninth run overseeing the bash, with Eric Church, Chris Stapleton and Maren Morris topping the list of nominees with five nods each. Here, Gill and a choir of fellow past hosts look back on the show that has been forever country…even before country was cool.

CMA Awards
R. Hood

Barbara Mandrell (1980–82)

“The first year I cohosted with Mac Davis, country music was going through the Urban Cowboy movement,” recalls Mandrell, who also won the first of her historic back-to-back Entertainer of the Year trophies that night.

Where Was Country Music at the Time?

"The CMA Awards show was always a magical time in Nashville and it was a time that I got to to see other artists that I didn't get to see the rest of the year. I have always loved the Country Music Association and I served six consecutive years on their Board of Directors...I've always thought of the CMA Awards show as the Oscars of country music so it was my great pleasure to co-host the show."
Randy Travis performing at the 1990 CMA Awards
Beth Gwinn

Randy Travis (1990)

“I cohosted with Reba McEntire, and I remember wondering what I was doing up there with such a legend!” says Travis, who counts the ’87 CMAs as a fave. “I was singing ‘Forever and Ever, Amen’—which won Single and Song of the Year that year—and while wandering through the audience, I hugged Minnie Pearl, who whispered, ‘You’re just what we needed.’”

Big Winners

“George Strait won Entertainer of the Year, and Garth Brooks won The Horizon Award,” recalls Travis. “Boy, were those spot on! Some of the song winners that year included, Vince Gill with ‘When I Call Your Name,’ Lorrie Morgan and Keith Whitley with ‘Til A Tear Becomes A Rose,’ and Garth with ‘The Dance’—classic music by classic artists! Tennessee Ernie Ford was inducted into the Hall of Fame. I was surrounded by greatness!”

Where Was Country Music at the Time?

“The Awards at that time were held at the Grand Ole Opry so the audience was smaller and ‘all-in’ country. As was the reformed love for country music. It seems the audience was happy to hear the warmth of traditional country, again, and we as artists were happy to oblige them.”

Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks of the duo Brooks & Dunn accept the award for vocal duo of the year during the 39th Annual Country Music Association Awards
Julie Jacobson/AP Photo

Brooks & Dunn (2004–06)

After 38 years in Nashville, the event moved to New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2005 and was hosted by the duo at the peak of country’s crossover appeal. “Garth, George Strait, Reba, Randy Travis, Alabama and Shania Twain, to name a few, led the charge,” says Ronnie Dunn (far left). “For the first time, crowds at country shows were rivaling rock shows.”

Hillbilly Deluxe

“The show itself was a blur,” says Dunn. “I remember long-time Emmy Award winning producer Walter Miller adamantly ordering Kix and I to ‘put our hands in our pockets, be good boys and stick to the written script.’ So we did!”

Crown and Country

“I think the best part of the Country Music Awards show is its power to expose, promote and perpetuate the genre of Country music,” notes the multiple winner. “It’s amazing to see how winning an award can raise the profile and perception of a career.”

Reba McEntire - CMA
Beth Gwinn

Reba McEntire (1990–92)

“The biggest job of hosting—you’ve got to find the perfect thing to wear!” says McEntire with a laugh. “No matter if you win or lose, if you’re nominated or performing, whatever, everybody’s going to say, ‘Well, what she had on was OK.’ Her most treasured trophy? “That very first win: the 1984 Female Vocalist of the Year. I was just blown away.”

Meat the Press

“To win, it was just so incredible,” McEntire continues. “And then afterward, [you do all of this] press, I mean we were there all night long…I didn’t get to go celebrate or anything, because we were just racing back and forth from the Opry House to the Grand Ole Opry and then all over. Finally, when my first husband and I got back to the room I just had a bologna sandwich and a beer. I was just so tired and starving to death!”

Plans for the 50th

“Oh yeah, I’m already in the process of finding me a couple of outfits! One for the red carpet and then one to attend. I’m gonna have two, at least. I’m gonna have me a big time. I’m gonna stay out all night. It’s the 50th year! And you know, everybody’s encouraged everyone to step up the wardrobe and to make it a black tie event and bring back the gowns and I’m for that 100%. Let’s show a lot of respect and reverence.”

Dolly Parton - 22nd Annual CMA Awards
The 22nd Annual CMA Awards

Dolly Parton (1988)

In addition to winning Vocal Event of the Year for her team-up with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on “Trio,” the icon won over viewers with her lone hosting effort. “It was a tremendous amount of work in preparing” remembers Parton. “And then the show was over in a blink of an eye. But it was lots of fun!”

Where Was Country Music at the Time?

“Randy Travis and K.T. Oslin were big winners and my good friend Ricky Van Shelton, whom I recorded ‘Rocking Years’ with also won!” remembered Parton. “But the biggest awards of the night went to my buddy Hank Jr. as he won Album of the Year and Entertainer of the Year!”

Best Part of the CMAs

“Winning, of course!”

Kenny Rogers wins Male Vocalist of the Year at the 1979 CMA Awards

Kenny Rogers (1979, 1984, 1987)

Rogers hit the jackpot in ’79, winning for Male Vocalist and both Song and Album of the Year. “There were more story songs then,” he says. “It was less ‘Let’s go out in my pickup truck’ and more about the experiences people had.”

Smile, You’re On Kenny’s Camera!

“I remember one year when I hosted, I set up my camera backstage and took pictures of all the talented people that were there. I had Lyle Lovett put his hands on a cabinet and stand there but I had to interrupt that photo session to go out to rehearsal. When I came back, Lyle was still standing there exactly the same way he was when I had left the room! I thought that was pretty funny. I had an amazing opportunity to take a lot of pictures of some great artists, simply by virtue of them already being there and in wardrobe.”

Where Was Country Music at the Time?

“In the late 70’s, I think Willie Nelson and Barbara Mandrell were two of the biggest acts at the CMAs,” says Rogers. “As we moved into the early 80’s, I remember Alabama, The Judds, Ronnie Milsap and others having great success. In the late 80’s, Randy Travis came along and really made a name for himself. And then there was Hank Williams, Jr., George Strait and Clint Black. I guess Garth was starting to be established about then, too.”

Dolly Parton and Vince Gill perform at The 33th Annual CMA Awards in 1999

Vince Gill (1992–2003)

Over a 12-year run as host, Gill says, “All I wanted was for people who tuned in to see how great country music was.” Perfect example: The multi-award winner’s 1998 performance of “My Kind of Woman, My Kind of Man” with Parton. “She is about the greatest treasure we’ve ever had,” he raves of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.


Gill clams to have “seen almost all” of the shows. “When I was a kid, I was such a huge fan. I remember watching them every year to see live what I loved so much. Then in the early 80s when I moved to Nashville, I started going to them. I attended for seven years before they figured out I was a wiseguy enough to host!”

Credit Where Credit is Due

“The guy who was a big part of this all was Irving Waugh,” Gill offers of the late broadcaster. “He is responsible for getting the CMAs on TV, and he trusted me…I am so grateful for that. Truthfully, most people who watch the show don’t have a clue who Irving was. He was a behind-the-scenes guy but was a huge part of the popularity and expansion of the show. He deserves an awful lot of credit.”

Hello, Dolly

Of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Gill raves that Dolly Parton “is about the greatest treasure we have ever had. Not only is she a world-class singer, but her legacy of songwriting is on par with Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and LorettaLynn. It doesn’t get any better than her.”

Beth Gwin

Clint Black (1993)

Four years after winning the 1989 Horizon Award (for best new artist), Black was all smiles cohosting with Gill and had a blast cracking jokes with his fellow crooners. “One of my favorite parts was the commercial breaks,” he confesses. “I’d be at the podium and have that great audience to myself to kid around with.”

Where Was Country Music at the Time?

"It was at the height of the traditional country sound," Black states, citing "George Strait, Reba, Alabama" as the big names then. "The audience was huge and spanned all ages. I knew how much we loved it in Houston, but I remember being surprised at how popular it was in places like, LA, NY and Philadelphia."

The CMAs Rock Because...

"Their mission is to promote country music to the world. The awards show is the biggest opportunity to do that and it really shows how much class and sophistication there is in this genre."
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