Loretta Lynn, Jerry Lee Lewis honored at CMA Awards with fiery performances — in one case, literally

Elle King and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys take the stage at the 56th Annual CMA Awards. (Photo: Terry Wyatt/WireImage)

The country music community has been rocked by the loss of many legends this year, including Loretta Lynn, who was the first woman to win the Country Music Association Awards Entertainer of the Year 50 years ago, and Jerry Lee Lewis, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on October 19, just nine days before his death. Both icons received fitting tributes at the 56th annual CMA Awards, which took place on Wednesday, but one of those tributes was a little more fiery than the other — literally — and definitely a lot more polarizing.

The show opened cold with vintage footage of pioneer Lynn accepting the Entertainer of the Year trophy at the 1972 CMAs, followed by a medley of Lynn’s hits from three of country music’s biggest female superstars — Carrie Underwood singing with honesty on “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” Miranda Lambert does “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin” and Reba McEntire declares “You’re Lookin’ at Country” — before all three join forces for ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’.

Another Lynn successor, Carly Pearce, played the 2021 original Dear Miss Loretta, introducing her performance by saying, “I grew up in Kentucky, like the great Loretta Lynn. Mamaw Pearce and I loved listening to Loretta’s songs together. I think Mamaw loved Loretta so much because she was also a miner’s daughter. I never met Loretta—I always wished I had—but I wrote this song as a tribute to her because I so admire everything about her, especially how she unapologetically wrote about her life. Loretta, this is for you.’

While Lynn’s tributes were sweet and emotional, Lee’s tribute was pure rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. Alt-Americana troublemaker Elle King, along with Ohio blues-garage duo the Black Keys, lit up the stage – yes, literally, when King set her piano on fire – for a rousing and raucous “Great Balls of Fire”. King, in painted patent leather with “THE KILLER” rhinestoned across her Juicy Couture style, growled, screamed and slammed the keys while the Keys strummed and grooved.

Elle King performs at the 56th Annual CMA Awards.  (Photo: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Elle King performs at the 56th Annual CMA Awards. (Photo: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Elle King performs at the 56th Annual CMA Awards.  (Photo: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Elle King performs at the 56th Annual CMA Awards. (Photo: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Elle King and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys perform on stage at the 56th Annual CMA Awards (Photo: Terry Wyatt/WireImage)

Elle King and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys perform on stage at the 56th Annual CMA Awards (Photo: Terry Wyatt/WireImage)

Elle King and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys appear on stage at the 56th Annual CMA Awards (Photo: ABC via Getty Images)

Elle King and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys appear on stage at the 56th Annual CMA Awards (Photo: ABC via Getty Images)

The reaction on Twitter was divided. Some fans loved the unpredictable energy of Lewis’ pantsuit, but others criticized King’s edgy outfit and Gene Simmons-like wagging tongue. Some critics accused King of not really playing the piano live, of not being country enough, of being rude and disrespectful, or even of being drunk. However, this it was the liveliest, loosest moment of the night, and it was the kind of tribute that the wild man himself, the killer—and maybe even the rebel Lynn, would probably appreciate.

“Great Balls of Fire” wasn’t the only rock ‘n’ roll moment at Wednesday’s three-hour CMA ceremony. Duos the War and Treaty and Brothers Osborne teamed up to preview a track from ‘Nashville’s love letter to the Rolling Stones, Stoned Cold Country, an upcoming all-star compilation of Stones covers, and rocked the stage in their own way with “It’s Only Rock & Roll.” And earlier in the evening, the Osborne sisters had the chance to acknowledge the legacy of another country legend who died tragically in 2022, Naomi Judd.

Naomi’s daughter and Judds’ bandmate Wynonna Judd presented Brothers Osborne with the Duo of the Year award, first taking a moment at the podium to solemnly declare: “In death there is life, and here I am. Thank you for your love and support. These past six months have been a time to mourn and a time to be thankful. And I’m humbled and honored tonight to still have a seat at the country music table. I have the opportunity to present the CMT Award for Duo, which mom and I have won seven times.” As Judds fan TJ Osbourne accepted this year’s honour, he gushed: “There have been so many amazing moments throughout this career. The fact that I moved to Nashville and had to stay here and end up not eating ramen noodles was a surprise. And to be here tonight and then to be in Wynonna’s presence while winning this award will be one of the biggest highlights of my entire life. This is so crazy to me.”

But perhaps the most touching speech about the loss came from frontman Matt Ramsey as he accepted Old Dominion’s Vocal Group of the Year award. “Obviously, we’ve lost a lot of legends, but there’s no one in this class, and really any class, that would be here without Alabama. And we just lost Jeff Cook,” he said, referring to the Alabama co-founder and guitarist who died Nov. 7. Ramsey turned to his teammates and thought, “It just got me thinking… it’s just, there’s nothing like being in a zone, You know? I am so thankful to have my friends and I can’t imagine losing any of you. And I’m very honored to make music. We love you. And we love the opportunity to do what we love.”

The 56th annual CMA Awards were hosted by Luke Bryan and Peyton Manning and took place on November 9 at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Other performers included Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark, Cody Johnson, Zac Brown Band, Lainey Wilson, Morgan Wallen, Thomas Rhett with Katy Perry, Patty Loveless and Chris Stapleton, Cole Swindell and Jo Dee Messina and Kelsea Ballerini with Kelly Clarkson and Carly. Pearce in a rousing “You’re drunk, go home.”

The Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Alan Jackson with greatest hits performances from Dierks Bentley, Jon Pardi, Carrie Underwood, Lainey Wilson and a visibly moved Jackson himself. The biggest honor of the night, Entertainer of the Year, went to Luke Combs. For a complete list of this year’s Country Music Association Awards winners, click here.

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