The CMAs are live east coast, but tape-delayed west coast. I’ve purposefully avoided the internet since 5pm PST so I wouldn’t know what’s to come.
8pm: Well, goddamn, that’s a way to start: Eric Church singing “Amazing Grace” a cappella got me choked up. And Darius Rucker and Keith Urban, plus Lady Antebellum (plus the obligatory gospel choir) doing “Hold My Hand” as a kind of unity anthem? With a shit-hot guitar solo from Urban? Yeah, that’ll work fucking nicely. The haters can hate elsewhere. WAIT HOLY FUCK, an entire front row’s worth of country superstars just joined onstage for the last chorus: Garth, Tim & Faith, Little Big Town, Reba, Ronnie Dunn… Whoa. This show knows how to pull off the big performance moments, that’s for sure.
8:06pm: Brad & Carrie open, as they have for the last 10 years. Carrie: “We’re gonna do what families do: come together, cry together, pray together, and sing together.” And then the two of ’em do a bit of a spoof, as they’re wont, called “Before He Tweets,” because they’re good at that kinda thing. [Interjection: why is P!nk in the front row?!] [Another interjection: good god, Tim & Faith — especially Faith — look absolutely phenomenal. Why haven’t they ever hosted?]
8:17pm: Single goes to Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” and I’m not mad. I called it “another career record in a career of career records” in my preview, and I stand by that. Also: mixed by Chris Lord-Alge?!? He mixed “Living In America”! And “Batdance”! And “The Best”! And the 12″ of “Dancing in the Dark”!
8:25pm: Thomas Rhett name-checks Coldplay; Darius Rucker name-checks R.E.M. That’s not just a difference in age, it’s an aesthetic difference that’s rather profound. “Unforgettable” is right.
8:28pm: Song, presented by Bobby Bones, Luke Combs, Brett Young, and inexplicably, “supermodel” Karlie Kloss. Oh, wait, could it be that they had Kloss present since she’s part of Taylor Fucking Swift’s squad? “Better Man” is a good song, and Little Big Town sing the fuck out of it, but fuck Swift, srsly. “She couldn’t be here tonight” because she’s turned her back on Nashville to make melody-lacking pop as bad as “Look What You Made Me Do,” and fuck that all the way.
8:30pm: A surprise performance which just starts, with Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts performing Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town” in tribute to the late Troy Gentry. OH SHIT: Eddie Montgomery walks out to take the third verse, and I choke up (and gasp) for the 2nd time this evening. That was really well-done.
8:39pm: A legend such as Reba joining Kelsea Ballerini for “Legends” is a little easy, but on the other hand, who’s ever gonna be mad at hearing Reba sing? And “Legends” earns it. Unfortunately, Reba and Kelsea don’t really seem to mesh, and compared to the fucking killer voice that is Reba, Kelsea’s can’t help but come off as a bit thin.
8:43pm: Luke Bryan’s here to sing “Light It Up” and show Thomas Rhett how one pulls off mixing in pop/R&B into your country and making it work. Also, his jeans are tight enough up top that I can clearly see the line of his boxer briefs. Not that I’m necessarily complaining.
8:52pm: Miranda! Oh wow: it’s a glammed-up Lambert showing boobies and singing the very classic-sounding “To Learn Her.” God, this is just so Tammy Wynette, it’s glorious. And was that Mary Chapin Carpenter singing backup?
8:56pm: New Artist goes to Jon Pardi in what I consider an upset! I was certain that Combs would take this. Not mad at all, though: Pardi’s even more of a new traditionalist than Combs, and his California Sunrise is a damned fine album. And he’s getting choked up while accepting! So adorable.
8:59pm: As he’s currently enjoying his biggest radio hit in 10 years, “Ask Me How I Know,” Garth shows to perform it. Since it’s Garth, he of course has his giant lower-case “g” logo over his stage. As a regular reader of the country trades, I can tell you that Garth really, really, really wants a #1 out of this. And I think he might actually get it.
9:09pm: Brothers Osborne do last single “It Ain’t My Fault,” which the entire audience seems to know. It’s fine — but then they go into the late Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time,” which the real country heads in the front row are very happy about (cf. Lambert, Bentley, Brooks, Urban). And I am, too.
9:13pm: Uh, Tyler Perry? Cool that he references Charley Pride, but I don’t get it. And no, Tyler, “we” are not “more alike than we are not alike.” The other half of this nation hates me and mine, whether you wanna admit it or not. It also rubs me the wrong way that someone with no connection to country music is handing out the award for Album. Wait, HOW THE FUCK did Chris Stapleton just win his second Album of the Year prize for his underbaked From A Room, Volume 1?! I am pissed and I am kinda livid right now.
9:18pm: Hellooooo, Faith Hill’s thigh! She’s wearing a killer, diaphanous red dress, hubby Tim McGraw’s in a white tux jacket, and they’re singing the title track from their impending duet album The Rest of Our Life. I am very, very excited to hear the full-length. I’m also very impressed that Tim’s hitting that falsetto note in the chorus, live.
9:27pm: P!nk is working the promo cycle for her new album, isn’t she? But goddamn, I just do not like her music. AND SHE’S NOT COUNTRY. As she got an inexplicable standing O, Eddie Montgomery was seen clearly smirking and sipping from a drink in the front row, I’m sure thinking “WTF was that?”
9:32pm: “No Such Thing As Broken Heart” is sung by Old Dominion, who get the “privilege” of presenting the radio personality winners. We’re halfway through the show, and it actually already feels a little long, but I’m still excited for Carrie, LBT, Keith Urban, and new Hall of Famer Alan Jackson.
9:39pm: Little Big Town come back straight out of commercial and are doing “Wichita Lineman” with Jimmy Webb on piano, 2 acoustic guitars, and nothing else but voice. Wow. Of course, no one can top their vocal harmonies, so this is gorgeous and devastating.
9:42pm: It’s Sugarland! Here to present Vocal Duo, which they won from 2007-11. It goes again to Brothers Osborne, of course.
9:52pm: Chris Stapleton and his hippie earth mother wife sing “Broken Halos.” He’s authentic, maaaaan.
9:55pm: Maren Morris is wonderful, and I will never complain about hearing her sing “I Could Use A Love Song.” But former 1Der Niall Horan, really? Ugh.
10:04pm: Carrie sings the hymn “Softly and Tenderly,” while everyone in the arena holds fake candles, and the “In Memoriam” reel runs. It’s of course, fairly moving, because no one can nail this kind of thing like Carrie can. Oh God, gutpunch time: they end it with photos of all of those who were killed at the Route 91 Festival.
10:13pm: Vocal Group goes to Little Big Town for the 6th year in a row. I love The Breaker so much — it’s probably my favorite country album of the year. And I’m no come-lately, for the record — I gave their soph album The Road to Here an A- for Stylus back in 2005.
10:17pm: Oh, Brad, you are capable of so much better than a bullshit jingoistic song called “Heaven South.” And why wasn’t Kane Brown given his own performance slot, instead of having to join Paisley on his song? Similarly, why does Jon Pardi, who just won the New Artist award, only get to do a verse and two choruses of “Dirt on My Boots”? It’s almost as if the CMA is afraid of giving the young bucks too much shine.
10:22pm: For some reason I can’t quite ascertain, Dan + Shay (gross) and Lauren Alaina are duetting on the Youngbloods’ hideous 1969 hit “Get Together,” from the Country Music Hall of Fame. Is this a commercial for something? I think Wal-Mart was mentioned.
10:27pm: Carrie informs us that Keith Urban has won 11 CMA awards (including tonight), intro’ing him doing his new song “Female.” This just went to radio today, so I’m guessing that for most in the audience, it’s their first time hearing it. He’s singing to track, but for once that doesn’t bother me, since this performance probably came together pretty quickly (and Urban’s off-cycle, meaning that his touring band is probably scattered to the winds at the moment). The song is a response to the glut of sexual harassment allegations in the news right now, but also has an impact in light of Urban’s wife Nicole Kidman’s Emmy Award-winning performance as an abused wife in Big Little Lies.
10:31pm: I’ll keep saying it: it bugs me when people with no (apparent) connection to country music present big awards, like an actress I half-recognize and a NASCAR driver handing out Female Vocalist. I’m of course very happy to see Lambert take it home, but I’m really surprised that it’s the only award she’s received tonight.
10:33pm: Eric Church dropped Mr. Misunderstood as a surprise album the night of the CMAs two years ago. Last year it won Album of the Year. Tonight he’s doing yet another song from it, “Chattanooga Lucy.” I do wish he didn’t have to rhyme the titular name with “juicy.” In his introduction, Brad Paisley said “this one’s gonna rock,” but it actually seems oddly restrained.
10:42pm: Trisha Yearwood presents Male Vocalist to fuckin’ dirty-looking Chris Stapleton, for the third year in a row. He’s not even a particularly compelling vocalist, which is what the category is supposed to be about!
10:45pm: Here’s how major Alan Jackson is: he’s getting a standing ovation during his performance. When Carrie and Brad introduced him, the entire audience stood immediately, as it should be. He’s won 16 CMA Awards, including Entertainer of the Year 3x, and his performance of 1990’s #2 country single “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” reminds everyone how it’s done.
10:53pm: All of those trade ads, week after week, paid off: Reba presents Entertainer to Garth Brooks, for the 2nd year in a row and 5th overall. And then “Action” Jackson pops back up to sing “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” accompanied by Carrie on backing vocals and Brad on guitar.
There were some great performances, but overall, this year’s show felt a little “meh.” Maybe it was because the overall tone was (appropriately) a little downbeat? Until next year, when I’m guessing we have to look forward to From A Room, Volume 2 winning Album of the Year (groan)?