CCMA Awards converge on London in front of in-person vaccinated crowd


LONDON, Ont. — Drag queen-turned-country music diva Priyanka was feeling the love as cowboy boots converged on the southern Ontario streets of London on Monday night to celebrate the Canadian Country Music Association awards show in person.

The country music celebration returned to the live-event sphere for the first time since Calgary hosted in 2019 with a fully vaccinated crowd at the downtown Budweiser Gardens.

Fans clad in plaid shirts and cowboy boots hovered near a red-carpet area in advance of the show to catch a glimpse of Canada’s top country musicians, as well as the country’s recently crowned top drag queen who served as co-host.

While last year’s show was a modified, virtual event due to COVID-19 restrictions, Monday’s bash brought the glam thanks to “Canada’s Drag Race” winner Priyanka and Lindsay Ell of Calgary.

The two kicked off the show with Priyanka in an asymmetrical blue sequin minidress belting, “Let’s go girls!” and singing the first verse of Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” and a sequin-draped Ell joining in for a partial duet on Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About.”

Earlier, Priyanka paused for photos with fans on the red carpet where she put a bedazzled twist on the Canadian tuxedo — a studded denim bodysuit with matching jacket, boots and fringed cowboy hat. She said the look was an homage to the denim dress worn at the 2001 American Music Awards by Britney Spears, who was recently freed from a 13-year conservatorship.

Priyanka, known out of drag as Mark Suknanan of Toronto, said being at the CCMA Awards was “a dream come true.”

“I get to perform, I get to host, I get to be a drag queen,” she said. “People always say that country music is so conservative. So it’s nice to show up and be accepted and be loved so people can see that we’re all in this together…. I’m very used to being an outcast in a room, but in this room I’m not.”

Brett Kissel from Flat Lake, Alta., came into the night already having won best video for “Make A Life, Not A Living,” at a ceremony in London on Sunday night that handed out the bulk of the awards. He also won a special live innovation award for his tour, “Brett Kissel: Live At The Drive-In,” and his production company claimed best country music program or special for a one-hour documentary about the tour.

Kissel was up for entertainer of the year against Dean Brody of Smithers, B.C.; MacKenzie Porter of Medicine Hat, Alta.; the Reklaws from Cambridge, Ont.; and Dallas Smith of Langley, B.C., on Monday night.

Ell also took home a trophy Sunday, nabbing the interactive artist of the year award.

Monday’s show streamed live on the Global TV app and Amazon Prime Video, and an encore presentation airs Friday on Global TV.

Awards were to be handed out in eight categories throughout the two-hour event, including entertainer of the year, fans’ choice, top album, top single, top female artist, top male artist, top group or duo, and rising star.

The Reklaws, a brother-sister pair from Cambridge, Ont., received a loud cheer from red-carpet watchers when they appeared with fellow singer Sacha of Warkworth, Ont. The duo was set to perform at the gala with Sacha.

The Reklaws led the artist award categories with six nominations coming into the weekend, while Smith, Ell and Kissel each had five.

Jenna Walker, one-half of the Reklaws duo, said she felt humbled by the recognition.

“We’ve come to this show forever, honestly. We came here as fans 10 years ago and have been dreaming to be here,” she said.

“Especially after this year that we’ve had,” brother Stuart Walker chimed in. “You start to question as an artist, when there’s a pandemic, (if) people are listening or they still care or if you’re falling off.

“And the fact that we came out with six (nominations), it’s incredible.”

Tyler Joe Miller of Surrey, B.C., came in with four nominations, including one for the rising star award.

Miller, walking the red carpet at a CCMA Awards for the first time, said his music career took off during the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that it felt surreal to finally meet fans and other artists in person this week.

“It’s such a great community,” he said. “I love everybody that I’ve met, I love everybody that I get to hang out with…. It’s really just a big party and we just get to have a good time. I really wouldn’t trade this for the world.”

U.S. country star Chris Stapleton, who won six Country Music Association Awards earlier this month, was set to perform virtually at Monday’s show, as were Thomas Rhett and Walker Hayes.

The CCMA implemented a vaccination policy for all Country Music Week events leading up to and including the award show. COVID-19 cases have been rising in Ontario this month, with 788 new infections reported Monday.

Attendees, including performers, presenters, their teams and guests had to be fully vaccinated to be part of the events.

A look at who won the top categories:

Entertainer of the year: Dallas Smith

Male artist of the year: Dallas Smith

Female artist of the year: Tenille Townes

Group or duo of the year: The Reklaws

Single of the sear: “Like a Man,” Dallas Smith

Album of the year: “The Lemonade Stand,” Tenille Townes

Fans’ choice: Brett Kissel

Rising Star: Robyn Ottolini

The CCMA announced Sunday that the awards would return to Calgary in 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Melissa Couto Zuber and Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press