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2015 CMA Awards: 12 Best and Worst Moments

From Luke Bryan’s before-our-eyes maturation to the funeral of bro country

Luke Bryan CMA Awards

Luke Bryan turned in a commanding, mature performance of "Strip It Down" during the 2015 CMA Awards.

Taylor Hill/Getty Images

The revolution was televised last night, as the 49th annual CMA Awards upended its recent tradition of retreads and took a hard turn toward recognizing substance, bestowing three deserving trophies on powerhouse singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton and crowning Little Big Town's “Girl Crush” the belle of the ball.  

And it was Justin Timberlake of all people who helped remind the assembled about the roots of the genre in his scorching country-pop-gospel collaboration with Stapleton. While there were some spotty musical moments and familiar reruns happening inside the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville — including Luke Bryan repeating for Entertainer of the Year and Miranda Lambert copping her sixth Female Vocalist of the Year trophy —  the night was a win for quality country music. Here are the 12 best and worst moments of the big show.

Justin Timberlake Chris Stapleton

THE 49th ANNUAL CMA AWARDS - "Country Music's Biggest Night(tm)" airs live WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 4 (8:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network from the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. (Photo by Image Group LA/ABC via Getty Images)

Best Mic Drop: Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake

How do you follow the best performance of the entire show — and quite possibly the most stunning in recent CMA history? Well, not easily. Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton's rendition of "Tennessee Whiskey" (off Stapleton's Traveller, which took home Album of the Year) and The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2's "Drink You Away" was so riveting that it made everything that followed pale in comparison. Much has been made of a possible Timberlake country album, but one of the best things about this moment was that it didn't try to turn the pop star into a twanger, nor the Male Vocalist of the Year into anything he isn't. Instead, they met right in the middle in the bluesy, soulful Muscle Shoals-inspired place that grounds both of their music. And, best of all, they let the full range of their vocals blast away into the stratosphere. Two masters, at the top of their game. Marissa R. Moss

Keith Urban John Mellencamp

THE 49th ANNUAL CMA AWARDS - "Country Music's Biggest Night(tm)" airs live WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 4 (8:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network from the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. (Photo by Image Group LA/ABC via Getty Images)

Worst Disappearing Act: John Mellencamp

Keith Urban's most recent Number One is "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16." John Mellencamp agreed to appear on the CMA Awards with Urban, even though he has long since changed the stage name that he famously loathes. Mellencamp sings one of his classic hits with Urban —  a stripped-back, rootsy take on the oft-misunderstood anthem of disillusion "Pink Houses" — and then, when it comes time to sing Urban's song, he leaves. Um, what? It's hard to discern what the point of that exercise was. Sure it might be kinda weird to sing a song with your name in it, but isn’t that the fun of having him there? Would the producers want Eric Church to welcome Bruce Springsteen out to sing "Born to Run" and then watch him waltz off when Church started "Springsteen"? Other than giving Mellencamp's back catalog a nice bump — which we are always in favor of — the bait-and-switch just made no sense. Sarah Rodman

Luke Bryan CMA Awards

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04: Luke Bryan performs during the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

Best Acting His Age: Luke Bryan

For the first time in his CMA Awards history, Luke Bryan came across as a career artist. Sure, he won Entertainer of the Year last year and has performed numerous times on the big show, but there was always the lingering sense that it could all be over in the blink of an eye — or the shake of a hip. Not so this year. Instead, Bryan cemented his future in country music. Eschewing the pyrotechnics and cheesy production of his peers, the singer shed his bro-country skin and relied on a strong vocal and wise song choice in "Strip It Down." Just as impressive was his graciousness in congratulating upset winner Chris Stapleton, who co-wrote Bryan's "Drink a Beer," in the Male Vocalist race. "Watching Chris Stapleton have this night is so uplifting," Bryan said after his own Entertainer victory, savvy enough to sense the country paradigm was shifting. Bryan will turn 40 next year — and it's already suiting him well. Joseph Hudak

Florida Georgia Line

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04: Florida Georgia Line perform during the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

Best Funeral: Bro Country

Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake's show-stealing performance would have been a tough act to follow for anyone. But it was a death sentence for bro country and, specifically, Florida Georgia Line, who took the stage next for new single "Confession" — a syrupy bit of try-hard earnestness that, on the heels of a real-deal R&B ballad, was tone deaf, and not just in terms of the music. Wearing what can only be called hobro chic, Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley — who would go on to win their third consecutive Duo of the Year later in the show — looked out of place while treading gingerly through a foggy church set on loan from Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video. If last year's Song of the Year win for Kacey Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow" sent the message that country music was ready for a new day, Wednesday night's embrace of the new and appreciation for the progressive signaled that that day has arrived. Bro country is dead. Crushed by "Girl Crush." Rendered ridiculous by "Girl in a Country Song." Left in the dust by Luke Bryan, who distanced himself from the trend with the mature "Strip It Down." The bro party is over and even Jason Aldean couldn't reignite the fire with a pyro-heavy performance of "Gonna Know We Were Here." Which is fine, because the party totally sucked anyway. Adam Gold

Hank Williams Jr.

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04: Hank Williams, Jr. and Eric Church perform onstage at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Best Instruments as Billboards: Hank Williams Jr. and Keith Urban

Who knew Woody Guthrie (and later Tom Morello) would somehow inspire this year's CMAs? Though no one scrawled "This Machine Kills Fascists" on their guitars like the original folk troubadour (nor would they ever – this awards show isn't exactly the place for controversy), there were lots of messages sent by way of instrument. The motto of Scott Borchetta's Big Machine Label Group, "Music Has Value," was emblazoned on the kit of Hank Williams Jr.'s drummer during his opening duet with Eric Church. Keith Urban promoted his upcoming album with "Ripcord 2016" scrawled on his guitar (did the label dial back your marketing budget, Keith?). And #HankandEric was stamped prominently on Bocephus's guitar, proving that even rowdy friends aren't above embracing the hashtag. M.M.

Zac Brown Band

Worst Bad Trip: Zac Brown’s Beautiful Drug

Trading the group's beach-bum bounce and hippie-tonk twang for the clubby, chemical rush of EDM, Zac Brown Band's "Beautiful Drug" was a buzz killer. The song's hooks were colossal, but they fell victim to the drum loops and pop production that whittled down the band's strengths like sandpaper. We know someone like Brown has earned the right not to take orders from anyone. . .but if he ever changes his mind, we'd love another serving of something that builds upon the "Homegrown" template, please. Andrew Leahey

Little Big Town

Best One-Two ‘Crush’: Little Big Town

In addition to Chris Stapleton's big sweep, the further retraining of the spotlight on quality came with the big wins for Little Big Town's "Girl Crush" for Single and Song of the Year respectively. The band took to the podium for the first triumph and wasted no time giving thanks to everyone who took risks along the way to support the sultry torch song written by Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey. "This is about being brave and being bold," said the group's Karen Fairchild, who later led the group in a heated performance of the ballad. "Country radio, thanks for having the guts to play it and for all the gatekeepers for not getting in the way of following our gut and our heart, because the fans want to hear it," Fairchild added. The songwriters took the stage next to collect their trophy and thanked the band for "taking this to places we never, ever, ever could've dreamed of." For a song that once was misinterpreted, the one-two victories were the ultimate validation. S.R.

Brad Paisley Carrie Underwood CMAs

Best Tiny Tribute: Remembering Little Jimmy Dickens

The country music family lost a patriarch this year with the passing of Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens, who died at age 94 on January 2nd. Brad Paisley, who shares comedic DNA with the diminutive wise-cracker, struck a friendship with Dickens long ago, and so led a fitting, heartfelt tribute early in the show. A video montage highlighted Dickens' impeccably timed CMA appearances over the years — as a hapless doctor, a Kanye West-ian interloper and even once as Justin Bieber. "In one of my last conversations with Jimmy, he told me that his final wish was to leave this world making people laugh onstage," Paisley said. "And so, we brought him here tonight." An audible gasp came from the audience as a golden urn was unveiled and Paisley reached inside. Pausing for dramatic effect, he pulled out another, teeny tiny urn, as the crowd erupted in laughter and applause. "One last laugh," said Carrie Underwood. C.P.

Jason Aldean

THE 49th ANNUAL CMA AWARDS - "Country Music's Biggest Night(tm)" airs live WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 4 (8:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network from the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. (Photo by Image Group LA/ABC via Getty Images)

Worst Waste of Fossil Fuels: Jason Aldean

Do we really need giant fireballs billowing behind artists in 2015? The whole world is coming around to the idea that dinosaur juice might not be the best long-term solution to the needs of modern society, yet Jason Aldean seems to drill a new well behind each stage he takes. The singer's performance of "Gonna Know We Were Here" was polished, aggressive and sweaty, but mostly uninteresting for the simple fact fans have seen him set fire to pretty much each and every awards show he's been on. Sure, this time he lit the mic stand, too, but we're still waiting for him to let his actual lyrics take the heat. C.P.

Eric Church

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04: Eric Church performs during the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

Best Weirdo Outreach: Eric Church

Working hard to carve that "outsider" niche a little deeper into country's mainstream, Eric Church unveiled "Mr. Misunderstood" during this year's CMA Awards. The lead track from a secret, unannounced album of the same name that appeared in fan club members' mailboxes this week, Church's latest is a rootsy joint with a message, name-checking fellow outsiders like Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy (whose song "Misunderstood" seems like an obvious touchstone for Church's tune). A moody mix of folk, rock and pop reminiscent of John Prine's best, Church's lyrics place him in league with those who seem weird by conventional wisdom, but are destined for greatness nonetheless. Church can no doubt identify, and the song's true, supportive intentions became clear at the very end: "Mr. Misunderstood," he crooned, "I understand." Chris Parton

Kacey Musgraves

THE 49th ANNUAL CMA AWARDS - "Country Music's Biggest Night(tm)" airs live WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 4 (8:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network from the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. (Photo by Image Group LA/ABC via Getty Images)

Best Cowgirl: Kacey Musgraves

Real men wear pink, and real women don't need pants – or AutoTune – to crank out a stoner-appropriate, dynamite performance. Last year, Kacey Musgraves lost her stick-on underwear at the CMAs before a duet with Loretta Lynn. This year, her trousers seemed to face a similar fate. As the cameraman struggled to find the least-revealing angle, she and her rose-colored band chugged through a version of Pageant Material's "Dime Store Cowgirl" where she looked, with her long hair swept to the side and crimson lips, like a young Coal Miner's Daughter. But, more importantly, she proved they have a smart sense of lyricism in common, too. Even more points for the elaborate My Little LSD Ponies backdrop, with its swirling rainbow and glitter lights — it was weird but welcome, in a show where most everyone else went for boring old black. Musgraves didn't win any awards last night, but this earned a (cartoonish and very sparkly) blue ribbon. M.M.

Brad Paisley Carrie Underwood CMAs

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04: Hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood speak onstage at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/WireImage)

Worst Holiday Uncle: Brad Paisley

Paisley's always been a skilled snark-master — which is why he's co-hosted the CMAs since 2008. But this year he veered a little too close toward the inappropriate uncle we all avoid at the holidays. While his punch lines in the opening "Cray Cray" song, sung to Patsy's "Crazy," elicited some giggles, they also felt dated and even out of touch, like the song's past-expiration-date title and the Caitlyn Jenner zinger. And his winking allusion to Justin Timberlake's "Dick in a Box" ("I can't put my finger on it…can I?" he asked) and his insistence on dropping trou was plain old weird. Still, points for recruiting an army of dancing mascots for his performance of "Country Nation" — even if it did call to mind the most hillbilly furries fetish ever. J.H.

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