The 2019 CMA Awards stage could not have been more perfectly set for Carrie Underwood to be crowned Entertainer of the Year: After three hours of what largely felt like a true celebration of country music's women, and a night during which younger artists were getting their due, actor Reese Witherspoon opened the category envelope and ...

It was Garth Brooks' name coming out of Witherspoon's mouth.

The show ended rather abruptly from there, with Underwood and her co-hosts, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton, simply wishing the crowd at Bridgestone Arena and viewers watching at home a good night. Online, though, fans were outraged, saying that Underwood was "robbed," and calling voters' decision "some major garbage."

Indeed, 2019 felt like Underwood's year to win CMA Entertainer of the Year, a victory that would have been her first in the category and the first for a female artist since 2011. Miranda Lambert and Runaway June, among others, were stumping for her. In an informal poll of artists conducted by Taste of Country in the days leading up to Wednesday night's (Nov. 13) ceremony, Underwood garnered 33 percent of the vote (second to Eric Church, who earned 44 percent; Brooks came in third, well behind them both, with 14 percent). And yet ...

On Twitter, up-and-coming artist Adam Hambrick (who was "pulling hard" for Church to win) tried to offer some perspective: "The biggest response in the arena last night was during the commercial break when people saw Garth walk onto the stage," Hambrick shared. "He still has that effect on people. He’s still selling out stadiums on multiple nights in a few minutes. He’s somehow still a cultural phenomenon.

"I still think Church or Carrie should’ve won," he added. "but let’s not act like what Garth does doesn’t still matter or that he didn’t work for it or whatever. That’s silly."

Plenty of artists will say that it's an honor simply to be nominated at an event like the CMAs; after all, even a nomination means your work is the cream of the country music crop. All five 2019 CMA Entertainer of the Year nominees (Brooks, Church, Chris Stapleton, Keith Urban and Underwood) put out great music, sell out tours and will leave an incredible legacy. But Brooks' category victory -- his third in four years, and his seventh overall -- makes plain two major flaws within the country music industry.

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CMA Awards, both the nominees and the winners, are determined by a group of 7,400 or so members of the country music industry: artists and musicians, engineers and producers, publicists and record company employees, and many others. It's not a mysterious committee that makes the picks; it's the nominated artists' peers, co-workers, employees and bosses. It's, in large part, the people who organizations such as Change the Conversation and WOMAN Nashville are speaking to as they push to correct the gender imbalance within the genre.

"@CarrieUnderwood not winning Entertainer of the Year last night was not only a huge DISRESPECT to her but also a big 'f--k you' to all female artists sitting in that audience who are left wondering 'If Carrie couldn't do it, how am I supposed to?'" writes @LiveASong4, succinctly explaining the issue. Brooks sells out stadiums and is a country music icon -- but in the last year alone, Underwood has released an acclaimed album and launched a buzzed-about tourhad a second child, hosted the CMA Awards for the 12th consecutive year and worked on outside endeavors (her athletic wear line and a forthcoming book).

It's not solely a male vs. female issue, though. As both rising artist Hambrick and that Taste of Country poll point out, plenty of people thought it was Church's time to win Entertainer of the Year, following the release of his stellar Desperate Man album and mega-successful Double Down Tour, during which he played two sets each night and performed two shows in most cities, consistently mixing up his setlist.

If musical output and touring performance are even, what's the difference between him and Brooks? Legacy. Thanks to his megastar status during the '90s, Brooks has a legacy unmatched by the other four 2019 CMA Entertainer of the Year nominees -- and country music has a history of glorifying its past, sometimes at the expense of its current superstars and its up-and-comers.

Church, too, would have been a first-time Entertainer of the Year winner, a fitting cap on a night that saw Maren Morris earn Album of the Year for her sophomore record, Dan + Shay take home their first Vocal Duo of the Year honor and Jenee Fleenor and Kacey Musgraves break long winning streaks in the Musician of the Year (Mac McAnally) and Female Vocalist of the Year (Miranda Lambert and Underwood). Stapleton also has yet to win in the category, despite being a consistent album-selling and touring force in recent years, and leading country music's new band of traditionalists.

On Wednesday night, the CMA's executives and showrunners did their part to elevate the both the women of country music, past and present, and the genre's rising stars, through performances, presenter slots and reminiscent moments. They and others are setting the industry up for change. It's long past time to take the opportunity.

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