NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Loretta Lynn’s career was just beginning when the first Country Music Association Awards were handed out in 1967, but five decades later, both musical institutions are still going strong.
Over the years, the award show itself has grown from a small banquet with a house band to a musical television event. Next week’s anniversary show airing live on ABC at 8 p.m. EDT will feature performances by Garth Brooks with Trisha Yearwood, Brooks & Dunn, Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Florida Georgia Line, Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw, Reba, George Strait, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban.
Lynn was the very first female vocalist of the year and went on to win eight CMAs. Here’s a look back at her experiences – and the CMAs – over the decades:
THE FIRST YEARS
The CMA was a trade organization that formed in 1958 with a mission to bring country music to the masses. That first show in 1967 was a small, untelevised affair hosted by Sonny James and Bobbie Gentry at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium.
“I even remember the little green dress I had on,” said Lynn during a phone interview from her home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee of that first-ever show. “It was a big thing for an artist to get that award and I got the first one.”
She had just put out her second album, featuring the hit songs “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).” The country gal from Kentucky had found her voice as a tough, honest songwriter.
“I think I was saying things that none of the other women were saying, but I didn’t realize that they were that bad, the way people took them,” Lynn said.
The second year, the show was taped and aired on NBC. By the third year, it aired live from the Ryman Auditorium.
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR
In 1972, Lynn was the first woman to win entertainer of the year, beating out artists like Merle Haggard. Only five other solo female artists and the Dixie Chicks have since reached that pinnacle. She also took home two additional awards that year for female vocalist and for duo of the year with Conway Twitty.
At the time, the CMA Awards were still in their youth, so for Lynn, the significance of being the first woman to win the award wasn’t as apparent as it is now looking back at the history of the show.
“I don’t think at that time we knew what a great thing it meant,” Lynn said.
But she also didn’t want anybody to forget it either as Lynn named her next album, “Entertainer of the Year – Loretta.”
COUNTRY’S BIG BOOM
Former CMA executive director Ed Benson had a front row seat to the growth of the CMA Awards during his 29 years with the CMA from 1979 to 2008.
“All along this same timeline, the artists themselves were becoming polished and accomplished, starting to tour on a broader basis and becoming more popular nationally,” Benson said.
Another key to the show’s success was to keep the focus on the performances.
“CMA only had 10 awards to give out and when the show went to two hours, you had more music than you had awards,” Benson said. “When we went to three hours, it was much more music. And the ratings were really strong.”
A SURPRISE FOR LYNN
Lynn almost didn’t show up to 1988 show when Johnny Cash surprised her on stage by telling her she was going to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“Minnie Pearl said ‘You have to come tonight,'” Lynn recalled. “I said, ‘I am not coming. I am going to a party right across the street.'”
Pearl eventually convinced Lynn to show up. After Cash’s announcement, Lynn got so excited she dropped her jewelry on stage and had to hand it off to the man in black. She joked she never really thought she could get into the Hall of Fame, saying “I could see the Hall of Shame, but not the Hall of Fame.”
Lynn said she never plans a speech for the awards, preferring to just say whatever comes to mind.
“If you ever plan a speech, you’re messing up right there,” Lynn said. “You need to say what you’re thinking right then.”
OPRY TO THE BIG APPLE
For three decades, the Grand Ole Opry House was the home of the CMA Awards. The crowds were mostly members of the music industry and fans who won tickets on the radio, Benson said.
“You had this event that was live on national television, but it was an intimate celebration with the artists on stage being able to look out and getting to see their fans and supporters, managers and publishers in the front row of the Opry House,” Benson said.
The show moved to an arena in 2005 when the CMAs were held at New York’s Madison Square Garden. It was the first and only time the show had been held outside of Nashville, and it’s been held at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville since 2006.
Lynn’s last performance on the CMA stage came two years ago when Lynn and singer Kacey Musgraves performed Lynn’s song “You’re Looking at Country.” In typical Lynn fashion, the performance had an unscripted moment when Musgraves had a wardrobe malfunction and had to ditch her underwear on stage.
“Did you know she lost her panties that night?” Lynn said with a laugh. “I said, ‘What did you do, Kacey?’ And she said, ‘Well when they hit the floor, I just kicked them off the stage.’ I would have died if it had been me.”
The CMA Awards air Wednesday, Nov. 2 on News 2 at 7 p.m.