If you were to judge just from this year’s CMA Awards telecast, you’d think that country music is in a pretty good place. And maybe it is, having apparently survived the great bro-country scare of 2011-16, few residuals of which were on view in Wednesday night’s largely satisfying ABC telecast. The format has even come back to a diverse and sensitive enough spot that the moments on the three-hour show meant to tip a hat to tragedies in Las Vegas or pay honor to country’s dearly departed stars didn’t produce a complete set of whiplash.
Hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, still proving a prescient choice in their 10th year sharing MC duties, set the tone with a brief nod to “all those we’ve lost and those still healing,” before moving on to more pressing national news… like the embarrassing PR snafu that embroiled the Country Music Association itself last week. Though the ban on topical questions on the red carpet had been rescinded some days back (not before Paisley tweeted his own objections to the silliness), Paisley claimed in the monologue that they’d been instructed to make the show “a politics-free zone,” which inevitably led to their usual cornpone political gags — throwing out titles like “Harper Valley DNC” and “Stand by Your Manafort” before getting to a parody of Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” now starring the president in “Before He Tweets.” Their gags are more “Hee Haw Goes to Washington” than Borowitz Report… and that’s okay.
Things got more serious soon enough with Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts paying tribute to the late Troy Gentry with “My Town,” soon joined by Gentry’s mic-twirling partner, Eddie Montgomery, as tearful family members looked on. The lack of introduction for the salute may have confused less genre-savvy viewers, but the slow-dawning surprise of it probably made it more touching for in-touch fans. Likewise for the Brothers Osborne’s tribute to the recently passed Don Williams with “Livin’ on Tulsa Time,” tagged on to their own “It Ain’t My Fault,” a hard-rocking choice that probably resulted in some fresh Shazam searches and iTunes sales for the still-rising sibling act.
Other sober moments included a premiere of Keith Urban’s new ballad, “Female,” a choice said to have been inspired by the Harvey Weinstein scandal. It wasn’t easy to tell on first listen whether the song is a quiet keeper — it mostly consists of a list of characteristics associated with strong women (“Broken halo, suit of armor, holy water, fortune teller”) — but avoids cliché enough to invite a second listen outside the demanding confines of a high-energy awards show. Also female-centric, if more mysterious, was Miranda Lambert’s superior “To Learn Her,” which would have been a highlight even if it didn’t offer the first and last pedal steel solo of the night.
Hymns popped up on a couple of occasions — right at the outset, with Eric Church’s snippet of “Amazing Grace,” and later, when Carrie Underwood knocked “Softly and Tenderly” out of the Bridgestone during a longer-than-usual In Memoriam montage. Placing Underwood so far away from the screen with the dissolves of the dearly departed was a curious choice, as was the number of establishing long shots; trying to make out who had died felt like trying to sneak a peek at a drive-in from several streets away. But the show zoomed back in in time to show the faces of all the victims of the Las Vegas massacre, leaving few dry eyes in the local or national house.
You’re not likely to hear a call for gun control from anyone at the CMAs this century, but there were calls for unity, whatever that might involve, and a pair of song choices meant to inspire timely good vibes: an all-star group-sing of Darius Rucker’s pre-solo smash “Hold My Hand,” and later a slightly less star-studded chorus of the ‘60s oldie “Get Together.” (Weirdly, but not coincidentally, this led right into the Wal-Mart commercial that lets the Youngbloods’ original version play out at length, while presenting a contemporary update on the old “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” ad that you could imagine being directed by an elderly Don Draper.)
The awards themselves proceeded along pretty predictable lines. Little Big Town joked about how the vocal group award should be named after their one-time shoo-in predecessors, Rascal Flatts, but they’ve won it enough times that they should probably graduate to emeritus status, too, if they weren’t so doggone good. They accepted the first award of the night, too, for “Better Man,” on behalf of the composer, a missing Taylor Swift, “wherever you are.” (Her location was in New York for “SNL” rehearsals, though Swift tweeted an enthusiastic video reaction to getting another CMA, three years after sweetly resigning from the genre.) LBT came back yet again to salute Glen Campbell with “Wichita Lineman,” accompanied by songwriter Jimmy Webb, proving they can find a better man — or men — after all.
Other inevitables these days include Lambert getting best female vocalist (for the seventh time), Chris Stapleton (whose tragedy-themed “Broken Halos” was another relevant performance highlight) repeating as male vocalist and album of the year winner again, and Garth Brooks getting his second consecutive honor as entertainer of the year. Brooks performed “Ask Me How I Know,” a song with a little more edge than some of his other recent singles, and one that’s shaping up to take him higher at radio than he’s been in a while, too. Social media lit up with questions about why Brooks appeared to be the only one on the show lip-syncing, since he’s not exactly a guy who can’t bring it live, but if he was under the weather or dealing with technical difficulties, he chose not to bring it up in his climactic acceptance speech.
Definitely not lip-syncing: Pink, who turned in perhaps the most bravura vocal turn of the night with “Barbies,” from her terrific new album. What she was doing on the CMAs wasn’t entirely clear, even though she’d been nominated for vocal event for a duet with the MIA Kenny Chesney. “Barbies” isn’t a particularly country-sounding song, she seems to have zero crossover aspirations, and there was no country duet partner, as every other pop singer on the show has historically been paired with. But country fans on social media seemed mostly accepting of the choice, as opposed to the pillorying Beyoncé took last year, when she sang a country song with a country act. You may want to draw your own conclusions.
The show’s historic deference to visiting pop stars continued with a medley duet between future tour partners Maren Morris and Niall Horan. Naturally, Morris’ superior song, “I Could Use a Love Song,” got only a verse and a chorus, whereas the visiting One Direction fellow’s tune got to play out at full length. But they did have chemistry and his album track did sound country.
Eric Church sounded less country than any of them, on this particular night, come to think of it, though that’s not a knock. With a light show behind him and some fuzztone guitars to his side, Church seemed to be beaming in his performance from the Whisky-a-Go-Go circa 1967, an unexpected approach that was just cuckoo enough to count as a standout.
But, speaking of standing out, the MVP award of the night would have to go to Faith Hill’s right leg, which emerged from the slit in her gown and never retreated during her duet with husband Tim McGraw. It was the shiniest single leg seen on the CMA stage since Underwood’s right appendage made a similarly glorious appearance in a similar gown some years back; it fully merited the eclipse glasses that had been passed out as a gag earlier in the evening.
The audibly biggest ovation did not go to Hill’s leg, however, or even to Brooks picking up the night’s top honor, but rather an appearance by new Country Hall of Fame member Alan Jackson. Giving Jackson two performance slots threatened to make the 51st annual CMA Awards a reprise of the veteran-heavy 50th annual show from last year. Let’s keep that allowance for legends up for the 52nd, too, shall we?