CMT Music Awards feature drag performers, Kelsea Ballerini prays for change after Nashville shooting

No mention made of trans-identified shooter or that school was Christian

Kelsea Ballerini performs 'If You Go Down I'm Goin' Down Too,' at the CMT awards on April 2, 2023.
Kelsea Ballerini performs "If You Go Down I'm Goin' Down Too," at the CMT awards on April 2, 2023. | Screengrab: YouTube/CMT

Just days after a trans-identified shooter killed six people at a Tennessee Christian school, singer Kelsea Ballerini spoke at the CMT awards about gun violence and her personal experience of witnessing the death of a classmate in a shooting at her high school cafeteria. And that wasn't the only statement Ballerini said she was making at the awards show, where she performed a music number with several drag queens on stage.

Kelsea Ballerini, who returned as co-host for the awards, sang her new single “If You Go Down (I'm Goin' Down Too)” alongside regulars from RuPaul's "Drag Race": Manila Luzon, Jan Sport, Kennedy Davenport and Olivia Lux during the broadcast Sunday night.

While initially the drag performers stayed in the background, all four eventually joined Ballerini for a catwalk-style performance. Following the number, Ballerini hugged the performers onstage.

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Prior to Sunday’s show, Ballerini told CMT that while “If You Go Down” was “originally about female friendship,” she said the song’s meaning has become “much broader than that.”

“It's a song that can be about what you stand for and who you stand with, and saying, 'I am ride or die for you,'” she told CMT. “And if you go down, I'm going down too."

When asked about whether the performance was intended as a response to legislation recently passed by Tennessee lawmakers banning drag performances, Ballerini said, "I hate that it's a statement. I wish that it was just an element of performance and celebration like it always has been. But I'm happy to make that statement."

Ballerini, 29, celebrated the moment and shared an image of herself onstage with the “iconic” drag performers.

She wrote: “if you go down, i’m going down too // thank you to these iconic queens and Manila Luzon, Kennedy Davenport, Jan Sport, Olivia Lux and CMT for celebrating love, self-expression, and performance.”

In an interview with ET Online, the drag performers championed their right to share the national stage with a country star like Ballerini.

"It means so much because any opportunity for us to share our gifts with the world is a blessing,” said Sport. “So, it's more of us having a message to bless other people. It's not bad. It's all good. It's all love.

“It's all total liberation — that's what the arts are all about."

"Just like all these amazing country music artists, we drag queens are also artists,” Luzon told ET. “And we deserve a space to be ourselves, express ourselves, and create something wonderful for everyone to enjoy.”

The musical number came after Ballerini opened the CMT Awards with a speech about last week’s shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville. The school is run by Covenant Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America) in the city's Green Hills neighborhood.

“On March 27, three 9-year-olds, Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs, along with Katherine Koonce, Cynthia Peak and Mike Hill walked into The Covenant School and didn’t walk out,” she said during her monologue. “The community of sorrow over this and the 130 mass shootings in the U.S. this year alone stretches from coast to coast.”

Ballerini went on to share her own harrowing experience with gun violence in 2008 when a classmate at Central High School in Knoxville was killed after another student shot him in the chest. 

After dedicating the awards show to what Ballerini called the “ever-growing list of families, friends, survivors, witnesses and responders, whose lives continue to forever be changed by gun violence, she offered a prayer for healing — and action. 

“I pray deeply that the closeness and the community we feel through the next few hours of music can soon turn into action — like, real action — that moves us forward together, that creates change for the safety and our kids and our loved ones,” Ballerini said.

While Ballerini did honor the victims, neither Ballerini nor CMT made any mention of shooter Audrey Hale’s trans identity, following the trend of a number of media outlets that declined to assign a trans-identified label to Hale. 

Hale, 28, of Nashville, was a former student at the school and self-identified as trans, according to Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake. 

Authorities say Hale was armed with two rifles and a handgun when she made entry just after 10 a.m. Wednesday at the school. 

She was fatally shot during the encounter with officers, police said.

Hale’s manifesto is reportedly under review by the FBI.

Ian M. Giatti is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at:

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