BEST: Carrie Underwood Takes Us to Church
Carrie Underwood’s new single is called "Church Bells," but her snarling CMT Music Awards performance felt more like a call to an exorcism than a Sunday service. Dressed in a lacy black gown with a windswept hairdo and a spooky banjo player by her side, it was clear the singer was going somewhere dark from the beginning. Then her lacy black gown ripped away to reveal an even lacier black jumpsuit while a devilish guitar riff rang through the air. It was like a new-school Charlie Daniels "Devil Went Down to Georgia" moment, complete with a morally ambiguous storyline about a gold digger, an abusive husband and poisoned-whiskey revenge. As she roared into the epic tune's turnaround, a huge church choir appeared to spur her voice even higher, testifying in a giant call-and-response moment and making the whole fire-and-brimstone stage seem even more ominous. As the last notes hammered on, Underwood seemed honestly overwhelmed by the performance, turning around to shake her head at the choir and mouthing an awestruck, "Wow."
WORST: Hosts Erin Andrews and J.J. Watt Get Stuck in Horny Teenager Mode
Fact: there are numerous sexually attractive men and women performing or closely connected to country music. We know this for certain because CMT Awards co-hosts Erin Andrews and J.J. Watt spent most of the show pointing it out to anyone watching: Watt repeatedly played up the tired "I'm single and want to get laid" shtick, while Andrews sheepishly fawned over Luke Bryan's "chiseled" features and Tim McGraw's posterior. What's troubling is that these are both smart and complex figures working near the top of their game in sports and, while some of the blame falls on the script writers, Watt and Andrews should be keenly aware that it's not fair (or particularly funny) to reduce the many accomplishments of country performers to a collection of desirable body parts.
BEST: Luke Bryan Plays Guitar Hero
All too often with awards shows, creativity comes in the form of production, whether that be pyrotechnics, scantily-clad dancers, pulsating lights or splashy video content. But with Luke Bryan's "Huntin', Fishin' and Lovin' Every Day" performance, the creative palette was made of nothing but musicianship. The country superstar started the song alone, armed only with his acoustic guitar and a swampy backdrop. By the second verse, he walked slowly to join his band on a different stage, with their tight accompaniment transforming the performance from an intimate songwriter's night to a stadium show — via Southern-rock sonics alone. The song's climax was an all-out game of Guitar Hero, with all five pickers in Bryan's band sharing the spotlight and delivering Keith Urban-like licks.
BEST: The Oak Ridge Boys Lead Night's Biggest Singalong
WORST: Little Big Town and Pharrell Williams Go Out With a Whimper
BEST: Thomas Rhett Throws a Street Party
With every awards show this year, Thomas Rhett seems to be winning the hearts and minds of country fans. First with his super-romantic hit "Die a Happy Man" (written for his stunning wife, Lauren), and also with performances like the one he put on at the CMTs. That stage – smack in the middle of Music City's neon-lit tourist district and lined with holler-and-swaller honky-tonks – is where they ought to film the whole show. It looks like a massive party with thousands of free-range country fans, and T-Rhett took advantage with a fun-loving, breathless rendition of "T Shirt," his sixth consecutive Number One single. For most of the song he was down in the crowd shouting the words, stealing sunglasses (and then giving them back) and busting out goofy robot dance moves, which only look cool and get a laugh when you seem like a good guy. Then, later on, "Die a Happy Man" won Male Video of the Year, adding trophies to a collection that already includes ACMs and ACCAs for Single and Song of the Year. When he thanked Lauren from the podium, she beamed and blushed for the camera, inspiring another 1,000 #relationshipgoals Instagram posts.
BEST: Erin Andrews, J.J. Watt Recruit All-Star Cast for Funny Opener
The laugh-out-loud opening skit was like Nashville's version of The Office. Luke Bryan and Brett Eldredge are the Jim and Dwight of the headset-wearing, boring desk-job bunch. Florida Georgia Line's Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard are the fanboy valet drivers. IT guy Jason Aldean comes cluelessly armed with a power drill to fix the computer of Erin Andrews (a pretty good comedic actress, by the way). Darius Rucker is CMT's president, and Billy Ray Cyrus is the resident hair stylist, armed with a "Kentucky waterfall" wig for host J.J. Watt. Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell make funny, Skype-d cameos, but it's Kellie Pickler as the sexed-up security guard who gets the biggest comedic props here. "Spread 'em! Bend over like it's time for a blitz," she yells at Watt, and his deadpan response is pretty great: "You do this every day. I'm calling HR."
WORST: Jason Aldean Would Rather Be Watching the NBA Finals
Jason Aldean's new single is called "Lights Come On," and it's what you might describe as a typical Jason Aldean hit: muscular beat, nü-metal guitars, tightly wound, suppressing-the-rage vocal delivery and lyrics about cutting loose after a 40-hour grind. But it might be getting a little too typical, even for Aldean. His performance at the CMT Music Awards was one of the highest billings of the show, a night-capper staged outside in the middle of the Lower Broadway with thousands of the rowdy faithful at his feet. Still, the singer seemed disinterested, maybe even a little bored, with the schtick. The opening verse in "Lights Come On" is low in Aldean's vocal register, making it hard to understand what he was getting all worked up about. He made it quickly into what seems like a chorus ready-made for a concert crowd — since it’s written about a concert crowd — but the energy never quite got flowing. Even his usual tomcat strut had a little less edge to it. Fireworks exploded overhead and the song ended with a satisfying big finish, but one begins to wonder if Aldean's heading for a fork in the "Dirt Road Anthem."