By Andrew Ellis, Editor
Something is happening. That much was confirmed last night at the 2nd Annual Midwest Country Music Awards, hosted by founding board member Paul “PT” Thomas.
But what was that something? It was a little bit of everything, and it was impossible not to notice as the night’s festivities commenced.
It started before the doors even opened. During soundcheck you could hear the artists joking with each other as they waited for their turn for their individual run-throughs and the big finale. And just as the doors were about to open, the lobby of the Medina Ballroom was packed to the brim — fans and artists were ready.
The ballroom filled up very quickly, and had you walked in afterwards you were transported. It had the all the glitz and glamor of the any awards show, and the welcoming atmosphere the Midwest has been known for. Tonight was about celebrating the country music scene in the Midwest, and everyone was ready for a good time.
As everyone got seated, Paul “PT” Thomas’ voice boomed over the room, telling everybody how the Midwest CMA was born. When he ended with “We are the Midwest CMA” the audience erupted in cheers and applause. It was time to start the party.
The Show Begins
For the first performance Ben Johnson came out with just his acoustic guitar and sang “My Heart Will Bring Me Home.” Afterwards Chris Kroeze, who bring home the Male Vocalist of the Year award came out to perform a broken down version of his single “I’m Only Human” with his fiddle player Natalie Murphy. The crowd hung onto every word.
Murphy stayed on stage to perform a fiddle duet with Bettina Villamil. With each back and forth the crowd more into and then they merged into “Devil Went Down to Georgia” with the always energetic Shalo Lee Band. Lee brought the house down and showed why she’s been playing for so long. She knows how to put it all into each performance.
After Paul “PT” Thomas came out to welcome everyone to the show, he explained the meaning behind the show’s theme of “Roots and Wings.” Shortly afterward, the Studio Engineer of the Year award was presented to Greg Huberty his work with artist members Hailey James, Sailor Jerri, RJ Graff, and Travis Thamert.
Next up songwriter Jeff Dayton, also former bandleader for Glen Campbell, presented the Album of the Year to the Plott Hounds for Damn the Wind.
Some “Rude” Blues and Some “Mood”
Then it was time for Joe Flip and his Stevie Ray Vaughan Tribute Band to bring some Texas blues onto the stage with “Rude Mood” followed by Pamela McNeil singing Stevie Nick’s “Landslide,” and “Fault Line” from her Midwest CMA nominated album Solitary.
PT came back onstage to showcase his own singing talent with a Midwest CMA parody of “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” and then through to Wisconsin native Ari Herstand who presented the Songwriter of the Year Award to Sarah Morris. Program Director Bill Satre of B93.3 Brainerd presented Song of the Year to Lake & Lyndale for “The Weight.”
Then armed with just her guitar, reigning Female Vocalist of the Year Erin Grand filled the room with her voice on “Mood,” and showed her sultry side. Wisconsin’s own Pat Watters Band kept the crowd moving with Brooks & Dunn’s “Brand New Man,” an original called “Love to be Wanted,” and Hal Ketchum’s “Small town Saturday Night.”
Toilet Tunes and Drinking Songs
It was then time for some more Sarah Morris as she and PT did a special Toilet Tunes performance for the awards show. Then it was back onstage as Midwest CMA Advisory Board member Shannon Hoheisel presented Video of the Year to Poppa Bear Norton for “I Like to Fish (But I Love to Drink),” which was followed by a video acceptance speech from the band’s singer Zak Norton.
Board member Bob Keseley presented Concert Photographer of the Year to Chris Walden who marked his second year in a row of winning the award. Then it was time to liven the mood up with some acoustic drinking songs. Jake Nelson performed fan favorite “Sip Sip,” Brad Morgan performed “Grain of Salt,” and Travis Thamert performed “Day Drinkers.”
Immunity and Mavericks
After PT came onstage claiming his immunity to the coronavirus due his bottle of Corona in his hand, Midwest CMA Advisory Board member Michelle Westberg presented the award for Best Tribute Band to the Johnny Cash tribute band Church of Cash. Afterwards, Lakes Jam General Manager Ken Lacy presented the Live Sound Mixer award to Cevin Reed.
Then it was time for something a little different. And you’d expect nothing else coming the nominees of the Maverick Award. Iowa’s Danny Grause, and Minnesota’s Becky Kapell, Ledfoot Larry, Mark Stone, and JT & the Gunslingers took the stage for a set that was as diverse as their own sounds. They started out with Waylon Jenning’s “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” then came Led Zeppelin’s “Rock And Roll” and the big finale of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
Linton’s Legacy and Tributes to Country Legends
Following the energetic performance, PT walked on stage to talk about the concept of the Legacy Award. He then introduced last year’s inaugural recipient of the award, Neil Freeman to talk about this year’s recipient Sherwin Linton. A montage played of his career which included his friendship with Johnny Cash and other country legends, including a quote from Marty Stuart.
His daughter Melody came on stage to accept the award, and then they rolled to his video acceptance speech. In his speech he presented the next performance which was by Church of Cash performing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and bringing us into the world of Johnny Cash. Then Joyann Parker walked onstage, channeled Patsy Cline and performed “Walking After Midnight.”
The New Maverick
Then came the Maverick Award. Before board member Allie Gilbert could present the award, PT came on stage in a Maverick costume from Top Gun. He had been given the award last year by the actual winner Zak Norton for his work in creating the Midwest Country Music Association. Gilbert had to “explain” that he probably that it wasn’t working that way this year.
This year it went to Mark Stone, a longtime local musician and current lead singer of Mark Stone and the Dirty Country Band. He’s also tireless supporter of the local scene. The next performance was the Jensen Sisters and Dayna Koehn.
“Let the Girls Play” and a Salute to Patriots
The Jensen Sisters performed “River Song,” and Dayna Koehn performed the rowdy “Let The Girls Play.” Then they all joined in on Linda Ronstadt’s “When Will I Be Loved?”
New board member Matt Graunke came onstage to present the Americana Artist of the year award to Sarah Morris.
Then it was time for a salute to all the members who had served and are serving in the United States Armed Forces. The names appeared on screen as Navy veteran Sailor Jerri performed a small portion her version of “Hallelujah,” and she joined Anderson Daniels on his signature song “Heartland.”
Love for Lilly
PT came back onstage to talk about how far the Midwest Country Music Association has come. He then zeroed in the recent partnership with Masonic Children’s Hospital and introduced Nick Engbloom who gave rousing speech about the children and families staying there.
In one of the most powerful moments in the show he introduced a video diary from the Farmers Daughters’ Lindsey Olson. She had been at Masonic with her baby daughter Lilly for over 6 months, because she had to have three open heart surgeries and a heart transplant. She talked about how Lily was doing, the hospital, and how great it was to see her fellow artist friends on Masonic Music Mondays. You could nearly everyone wiping tears for their eyes.
The next performance was full of female power. Elizabeth Keeney performed “Free,” Brooke Lynn performed “Lovin My Momma,” a tribute to her dad with Julie Eddy on guitar, and Darian Leigh performed one of her newer songs “Closer.”
Passing the Torch
Afterwards reigning New Artist of the Year Anderson Daniels came out to hand the torch of. And it was the Jensen Sisters who took home this year’s New Artist of the Year. It was then time for people to get up again as Mitch Gordon performed his Honky Tonk-ready song “Beer Joint” and Shane Martin performed his glass-raising “Hankerin’& Jonesin.” They both closed it down with “Workin’ Man Blues.”
Tom Pickard of Le Musique Room came out to present the Band of the Year award to Lake & Lynndale. Then MoeDell, Russ Parrish, and the Plott Hounds performed one of the most memorable sets of the night. They each joined each other on their own songs with MoeDell’s “Porch,” the Plott Hounds “Country Blues,” and Russ Parrish “Washed By the Water” which brought everyone to church.
Arnie from COW 97O came onstage to present Female Vocalist of the Year to a very surprised Erin Grand for the second year in a row. Local scene veterans Hitchville showed everyone why they’re still going strong with an exciting performance of their hit single “Hole in the Wall,” and had everyone singing along to Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.”
Iowa’s Steve Shettler of KBOE 104.9 FM came on to present the Male Vocalist of the Year Award to Chris Kroeze. Then Sarah Morris and Vicky Emerson took the stage to perform “Wyoming.”
Entertainer of the Year
The board came onstage to present the Entertainer of the Year Award to the Plott Hounds. After thanking all the volunteers for their hard work, PT announced next years date for February 14th and reminded everyone that the Midwest CMA is a family.
Then it was time for the big finale. It started with Lake & Lyndale performing their award-winning song “There’s a Weight.” And then they rolled into the Band’s “The Weight,” which turned into a big sing along as Anderson Daniels, Erin Grand, Sarah Morris, Ben Johnson, Elizabeth Keeney, Brad Morgan, Jake Nelson, Chris Kroeze, Joyann Parker, and Dayna Koehn all came on stage in groups of two to trade lines of the song.
A Community Uniting
With the finale you could they were all having a blast on stage. It may have been the end of the show, but they were just getting started. And it was an energy that echoed the rest of the night.
Once the show ended nearly everyone stuck around to hang out. People were congratulating their peers, and catching up. They were talking about music and everything else. No one wanted to say goodbye.
So, what was that something that was happening? It was a celebration of something that’s uniquely theirs. It didn’t matter their place in the music scene. The country music community in the Midwest is becoming more united, and it won’t be long before everyone hears their collective voice.