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

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 Elle King and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys perform onstage at the 56th annual CMA Awards. (Photo: Terry Wyatt/WireImage)

Elle King and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys perform onstage at the 56th annual CMA Awards. (Photo: Terry Wyatt/WireImage)

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

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

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

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While the Lynn tributes were sweet and sentimental, the homage to Lee was pure rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. Alt-Americana agitator Elle King, joined by Ohio blues-garage duo the Black Keys, lit up the stage — yes, literally, when King set her piano ablaze — for a rousing and rowdy “Great Balls of Fire.” King, in painted-on patent pleather pants with “THE KILLER” emblazoned in rhinestones across her rear, Juicy Couture-style, snarled and screeched and pounded the keys, while the Keys chugged and grooved along.

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

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

Elle King and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys perform onstage at the 56th annual CMA Awards (Photo: ABC via Getty Images)Elle King and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys perform onstage at the 56th annual CMA Awards (Photo: ABC via Getty Images)

Elle King and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys perform onstage at the 56th annual CMA Awards (Photo: ABC via Getty Images)

Twitter reaction was split. Some fans loved the Lewis tribute’s unpredictable, seat-of-the-PVC-pants rawk energy, but others criticized King’s bodacious outfit and Gene Simmons-like waggling tongue. Some detractors accused King of not actually playing the piano live, not being country enough, being rude and disrespectful, or even being drunk. However, this was the liveliest, loosest moment of the night, and it was the sort of tribute that wild-man the Killer himself — and maybe even rebel-girl Lynn, too — probably would’ve appreciated.

“Great Balls of Fire” wasn’t the only rock ‘n’ roll moment of Wednesday’s three-hour CMAs 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, a forthcoming all-star collection of countrified Stones covers, and they fired up the stage in their own way with “It’s Only Rock & Roll.” And earlier in the night, Brothers Osborne had a chance to acknowledge the legacy of another country legend who tragically passed away in 2022, Naomi Judd.

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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 sincerely state, “In death there is life, and here I am. Thank you for your love and your support. These past six months have been a time to grieve and a time to be grateful. And I am humbled and honored tonight to still have a seat at the table of country music. I have the opportunity of presenting the CMT award for Duo, which Mom and I won seven times.” As Judds superfan T.J. Osbourne accepted this year’s honor, he gushed, “There’s been so many surprising moments in this entire career. The fact I moved to Nashville and I got to stay here and I got to eventually not eat ramen noodles, that was a surprise. And to be here tonight and then to be in the presence of Wynonna while winning this award will be one of the biggest highlights of my entire life. This is so crazy to me.”

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But perhaps the most touching speech about loss was by 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 nobody in this category, and really any category, that would be here without Alabama. And we just lost Jeff Cook,” he said, referring to the Alabama co-founder and guitarist who died on Nov. 7. Ramsey then turned to his bandmates and mused, “It just got me thinking… just, there’s nothing like being in a band, you know? I’m so grateful to have my friends, and I can’t imagine losing one of you guys. And I’m so honored to make music. We love you. And we love the opportunity do what we love doing.”

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The 56th annual CMA Awards ceremony was hosted by Luke Bryan and Peyton Manning and took place Nov. 9 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Other performers included Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark, Cody Johnson, the 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 on a rousing “You’re Drunk, Go Home.”

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

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