Darius Rucker at CMA Fest 2017

On Thursday, thousands of eager country fans will descend on downtown Nashville for the kickoff of CMA Fest 2022. After a two-year pause due to COVID-19, the massive four-day event returns with a packed schedule of live performances, meet-and-greets and other fan-focused events. The long-running fest, which began as Fan Fair in 1972, is marketed as a place where country listeners from all walks of life can enjoy live music and even get the chance to interact with their favorite artists, all within a unique and welcoming atmosphere. But has the Country Music Association’s vision of an inclusive, fun escape for country fans truly caught up with the times?

Over the past three years, the country music industry has been forced to face its own systemic issues with racism, sexism and inequality, though many artists and industry leaders have chosen to stay silent and stick with the status quo. Prior to 2020, the dialogue around the lack of women played on country radio, which had grown steadily since the so-called Tomatogate controversy of 2015 (in which a prominent radio consultant referred to women as the “tomatoes” to be used sparingly in the country music “salad”), was often centered on the experiences of white women. The social uprising and protests against police brutality and racism in summer 2020 — following the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and the shooting of Breonna Taylor by police, which isn’t technically a murder only because no one has been convicted — brought a long-overdue focus on the barriers Black country artists, especially Black women, have faced for decades.

As more Americans began to speak out, country music’s cultural tendency toward silence on major social issues was louder than ever. Even though the critical discussion around these issues has been more in-depth and more public than at any time in recent memory, the overall progress made within the industry has been minimal.

You might be asking, “What does all of this have to do with a country music festival?” Simply put, CMA Fest provides one of the largest, most lucrative and widest-reaching platforms for country artists. A performance on one of the festival’s curated stages provides a built-in crowd that’s ready and willing to listen. If you’re an artist who isn’t white and/or heterosexual, resources and opportunities like these are still incredibly difficult to gain access to.

If you look at this year’s roster of performers, it’s clear the Country Music Association has made an effort to have a more diverse and inclusive lineup. The Black Opry will bring rising talents Roberta Lea, Tylar Bryant, The Kentucky Gentlemen and Julie Williams to the CMA Close Up Stage at 2 p.m. on Sunday. For Love & Country, the recent Amazon Music documentary spotlighting Black country artists working to claim their deserved space in the genre, will be the focus of a special panel featuring Breland, Blanco Brown, Shy Carter and Frankie Staton. (That’s also on the CMA Close Up Stage, at noon on Friday.) Miko Marks, Reyna Roberts, Tiera Kennedy and Willie Jones are also among the notable acts set to appear, rounding out a schedule that features more Black artists than any of the festival’s lineups from the past decade.

Although there have been improvements, there’s still a long road ahead. Rising duo Kat + Alex is one of the very few Latino acts on the bill, underlining the longstanding absence of Latino artists on country radio and festival rosters. The additions of Ty Herndon — who broke down barriers in the genre by coming out as a gay man in 2014 — and rising talent Lily Rose on this year’s schedule show that needed space is being made for members of the LGBTQ community. TJ Osborne, one-half of duo Brothers Osborne, made headlines when he came out publicly in 2021; the band was a late addition to the lineup.

If you’ve never taken a dive into the sweaty chaos of CMA Fest, it might be hard to truly understand its reach and impact. Each day of the festival wraps with a massive concert event at Nissan Stadium, which features performances from some of the genre’s biggest acts. Portions of many of those performances this year will be included in CMA Fest, a TV special set to air on ABC affiliates in prime time on Aug. 3. The nightly showcases have given acts like Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini the opportunity to play for more than 50,000 fans, just as their careers are beginning to take off. Darius Rucker and Kane Brown were the first two Black or brown artists on the stadium lineup. Brittney Spencer — who closed out the 2022 Academy of Country Music Awards with a mind-blowing rendition of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” with Brothers Osborne, one of the most talked-about performances of the night — will sing the national anthem on Thursday. A smaller Platform Stage has been added to the center of the stadium setup, where Madeline Edwards, Frank Ray, and the aforementioned Lily Rose and Kat + Alex (among others) will perform.


Mickey Guyton

A surprising absence from the evening lineups is Mickey Guyton, whose powerful songs “Black Like Me” and “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” are prime examples of authentic country storytelling. Her choice to speak out about the racism and sexism she’s experienced throughout her career has given a face and a voice to an issue that many within the industry have tried to suppress. Her performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at this year’s Super Bowl showcased her incredible vocal talents, while giving millions of viewers a new vision of what country music is — and what it can be.

Guyton is scheduled to appear at the Universal Music Group booth on Saturday to meet and greet fans, but currently has no performances scheduled at the festival. Although it is possible that she could be tapped as a surprise guest, choosing to intentionally keep her name off of the lineup feels like a massive missed opportunity to showcase one of the genre’s best talents.

The overwhelming whiteness of the Nissan Stadium lineup feels especially blinding now, just days after the ACM announced that Morgan Wallen will receive their Milestone Award for his achievements in ticket and album sales and radio airplay. In 2021, he was banned from both the ACM and CMA Awards ceremonies after being caught on video yelling a racial slur. In March, Wallen returned to the ACM Awards, where he won one of the top honors of the night — Album of the Year. Voting for the 2022 CMA Awards will begin next month and will give an important signal of where the organization truly stands in terms of creating a welcoming and inclusive space.

At press time, Wallen’s tour schedule is empty on three of the four festival dates, meaning it is entirely possible that he could also be scheduled as a surprise act at CMA Fest. Although unlikely, it would be a move in line with the strategy that he and his team have used often in recent months; Wallen appeared as an unannounced guest at Luke Bryan’s Bridgestone Arena stop in July and again during Ernest’s Grand Ole Opry debut in January. These surprise appearances helped Wallen test the waters after disappearing from the public eye for a few months before scheduling three headlining dates at Bridgestone Arena earlier this year. All three concerts sold out, proving that there are still many country fans willing and eager to see Wallen onstage, no matter what that may signal for the genre as a whole.

An argument I often hear as a response to criticisms of the country music industry is that progress can take time, and to remember that even the smallest of steps toward equality should be celebrated. Yes, this year’s roster of talent does show an improvement and a wider span of representation from the Country Music Association. But there is still much more work to be done.

On June 1, news broke that 2022 is the first year that Confederate flags and imagery will be prohibited from the CMA Fest grounds. The organization’s choice to finally — albeit quietly, and following a couple of years behind NASCAR — ban a racist symbol that has been used by country artists over the decades should be celebrated. By removing an image that evokes so much pain for so many, the CMA has shown an intention to create a space that is comfortable and accessible for country fans of all kinds.

Still, the issues that often keep so many country artists from a fair shot at success have existed for decades, and continue to permeate the country music industry. Representation on the stage is meaningful, but without a lot more people of color behind the scenes, the framework for the whole industry remains warped. In 2022, the choice to create a welcoming space for all country fans — and the choice to include country acts who happen to be Black, who happen to identify as nonbinary, who happen to be Latino, who happen to be gay, who happen to be trans — should not be unique or noteworthy. It should simply be what is expected.

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