The show itself may have censors, but behind the scenes there are some loose lips at the CMA Awards. Take, for instance, Kacey Musgraves, who won Song of the Year but didn't hesitate to reveal to the press an embarrassing loss suffered just minutes later. Then there was Cole Swindell, who lost the New Artist trophy but dodged some bruises. And members of the press were not shy about their nominated favorites, nor were members of the audience shy about their dancing skills (or lack thereof). Here's what didn't make the prime-time broadcast.
So, what exactly were the Doobie Brothers doing at the CMAs? Who cares? They were incredible. Perhaps on TV the Michael McDonald-boasting band — as joined by Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott, precocious picker Hunter Hayes and powerhouse vocalist Jennifer Nettles— came off as super state-fair dinosaur-core. But inside in the boomer-brimming arena you'd have thought the Beatles just stepped onto the tarmac at JFK. A hero's welcome greeted the Brothers of Doob and an arena-sized-wedding-reception dance ensued, with soccer moms clapping hands and comically cutting rugs. Clearly, a vintage CMA clip of Merle Haggard crooning "Okie from Muskogee" that rolled during the break immediately preceding the performance was a good omen, as the energy level hit a high point when band and guests busted out "Listen to the Music," undoubtedly the funkiest song of the night (not that there was really any competition).
The key to Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood's continued success as a show-hosting comedy duo is their willingness to sacrifice pride when needed and ability to quickly recover when a punch-line doesn't quite land. That zinger about the Democrats losing the Senate over PPTSD (Postpartum Taylor Swift Disorder) absolutely killed inside the arena. But Brad's intended side-splitter: "If you were expecting to see the show Black-ish, this ain't it.… I hope you're enjoying White-ish," bombed hard, though not nearly as hard as "Accidental Racist" did.
There was an audible cheer in the press room — followed by a gasp — when Brantley Gilbert announced the winner of the coveted New Artist Award: the first notes of a hearty cheer erupted when an elongated "Brrr" sounded like the beginnings of universally-acclaimed underdog Brandy Clark's name. As soon as it became clear that Brett Eldredge was the owner of that "Br," the crowd hushed – with a touch of disappointment. Not to knock the well-deserving winner, but it was clear the press was hoping for its favorite indie songstress to prevail.
After unexpectedly snagging the New Artist of the Year trophy, Brett Eldredge, in a tux inspired by one of his idols, Frank Sinatra, headed backstage to talk to media — but the excitement and adrenaline rush of winning hadn't quite worn off yet. The "Mean to Me" singer was visibly trembling as he made his way around the room, at times even appearing close to tears. "I don’t even know what to say. I'm still in shock," he said. Ditto.
Cole Swindell may have been beat by the suave Brett Eldredge when it came to the New Artist of the Year award, but at least he was saved from a beating by buddy and fellow nominee Thomas Rhett. "He's not going to punch me in the stomach," Swindell told Rolling Stone Country before the show, about the "Make Me Wanna" singer's earlier pledge, "but I think he might trip me." Added Rhett, "either way, something bad's gonna happen to Cole if he wins." They both left empty-handed – but at least bruise-free. Silver linings!
When performing at the CMAs, here's one way to get a standing ovation on arrival — be Loretta Lynn. Of course, the crowd should have already been on its feet as — just moments after accepting the Song of the Year award for "Follow Your Arrow" — Kacey Musgraves, garbed in vintage Opry regalia, conversationally belted out a pedal-steel-dripping rendition of Lynn's 1971 classic, "You're Lookin' at Country." When the Coal Miner's Daughter herself surprise sauntered onstage mid-song, the crowd rose from its seats with the haste of football fans doing the wave. By the next chorus, the kindred spirits were singing with arms around each other like old drinking buddies. It was the most country moment of the night.
The Song of the Year winner was so excited about taking the stage with Loretta Lynn that her panties literally dropped beforehand. "Just so y'all know, right before I came on, my panties totally came off," she said speaking to the press backstage after the performance. "They were the stick-on kind. They were stuck on… and then they weren’t stuck on. So, literally, I had to rip them off and throw them to the side. They're somewhere around here. In case you see 'em, they're mine." We spent the rest of the night trying to figure out exactly what "stick-on-panties" are, and mostly hoping no one took home Musgraves' as a souvenir.
Compared to the rather excellent, earnest Song of the Year contender "I Hold On," it's easy to write off Dierks Bentley's light-hearted Riser hit "Drunk on a Plane" as a tossed-off, albeit-fun, novelty tune. But whether the ubiquitous song— which nabbed a Single of the Year nod — is more infectious than it deserves to be, or just totally transcendent in it's alcohol-fueled, sorrow-drowning, mile-high revelry, country fans are all about it. When the singer performed it on a runway-fashioned stage an hour and 20 minutes into the show, "Drunk on a Plane" was the first song to inspire an audience-wide chorus sing-along across the arena.
Shouldn't it be a little awkward, maybe, when Maddie & Tae take the CMA red carpet for the first time next to the superstars they skewered in their bro-country satire, "Girl in a Country Song"? "No," Maddie Marlow told Rolling Stone Country as the duo headed into the show. "We're poking fun at the trend, not the artists." Added Taylor Dye, "a lot of them actually appreciate the humor. Most of them have said, 'We love this song! It's stuck in our heads.'"
Craig Campbell stopped mid-sentence during his red carpet chat with Rolling Stone Country to say, "I'm sorry, I just got distracted there…. Look who's beside you." Standing a foot away was rock god Steven Tyler, and his presence pretty much dumbfounded everyone in a hundred-yard radius. The Aerosmith singer, who presented on the show, was the prom king of the carpet, with reporters and artists alike wanting to give him a hearty Nashville welcome. The praise was two-sided. "Country has been following me around my whole life. The first album I ever had on a turntable was the Everly Brothers," he told us, giving equal props to contemporary country: "I think country is the new rock & roll."