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2018 CMA Awards: 14 Best, Worst and WTF Moments

From Chris Stapleton’s stirring collaboration to co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood’s cringe-worthy jokes

Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley. Hosts Carrie Underwood, left, wearing a bubblewrap dress, and Brad Paisley appear at the 52nd annual CMA Awards at Bridgestone Arena, in Nashville, Tenn52nd Annual CMA Awards - Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley joked about Underwood's fall last year during their CMA Awards monologue.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The 52nd annual CMA Awards shined a national spotlight on the country music community on Wednesday night — for better and for worse. While many of the performances were inspired and captured the best of Nashville, some stage moments fell flat or were downright awkward. Here’s our recap of country music’s big party.

Lindsay Ell, Luke Bryan. Lindsay Ell, left, and Luke Bryan perform 'What Makes You Country'52nd Annual CMA Awards - Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Best Guest List: Luke Bryan’s All-Star Opening

While the transition between Garth Brooks’ opening tribute to the victims of the Borderline shooting and Luke Bryan’s subsequent performance was a bit jarring, Bryan did his best to put together an ensemble for “What Makes You Country” that reflected a sense of community. “Alright CMAs, let’s do what we do, and let’s be proud of what makes us country tonight,” he said, standing alone onstage with a Telecaster. Bryan and his band performed a straightforward take on the first half of the song by themselves before Luke Combs joined them, kicking off a long string of cameos. (Notably, when Combs performed the song’s second chorus, he changed the word “gun” to “boys” in the line “so I can grab my gun and get my outside on.”) Cole Swindell, Jon Pardi and Chris Janson joined in, too, but the biggest thrills of the performance came when Lindsay Ell, rocking a rainbow-painted electric guitar, ripped a fiery solo and Ashley McBryde, who deserved nominations for her fantastic album Girl Going Nowhere, showed off her pipes. B.M.

Brothers Osborne52nd Annual CMA Awards, Press Room, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

(Photo: Scott Kirkland/REX/Shutterstock)

Scott Kirkland/REX/Shutterstock

Best Three-Peat: Brothers Osborne

For the third straight year, Brothers Osborne took home the CMA Award for Vocal Duo of the Year. Upon accepting the award, the siblings — who have never shied away from political commentary — stayed true to form. “I don’t know why we keep winning this,” said TJ Obsorne. “If this was Florida there would definitely be a recount.” All jokes aside, TJ and John Osborne are still riding high on the release of their latest album Port Saint Joe, which is sure to land on at least a few year-end “best” lists. Ending their speech on a serious note, John nodded to fellow nominees Dan + Shay and told the audience, “Work hard, be diligent, and this can be yours too.” Elsewhere during the show, the Bros performed “Burning Man” alongside Dierks Bentley inside a literal ring of fire, with John offering some flaming licks and TJ showing off his singular baritone. B.M.

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 14:  (INSIDE ACCESS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Garth Brooks performs onstage during the 52nd annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 14, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for the Country Music Association)

(Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images for the Country Music Assoc)

John Shearer/Getty Images for the Country Mus

Worst Trend: Silence Without Action

The 2018 CMAs — like 2017’s show — began on a somber note, with Garth Brooks leading a silent tribute to victims of another country-related mass shooting: the 12 people murdered at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California. The tragedy took place a little over a year since 58 people lost their lives at the Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre in Las Vegas. In the time between the despicable acts, little has changed. Bump stocks are still legal, background checks haven’t been enhanced and, if anything, shootings are becoming more regular. In the country world, where gun culture has traditionally been celebrated, some artists dropped NRA partnerships but few have dared to speak out. If the alternative is more moments of silence like last night, perhaps it’s time they reconsider. C.P.

Kacey Musgraves52nd Annual CMA Awards, Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

Kacey Musgraves 52nd Annual CMA Awards, Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

Best About Time: Kacey Musgraves

Early in the day on Wednesday, Kacey Musgraves tweeted a photo of her first Nashville home with the caption, “Ten years ago TODAY, I moved to Nashville.”  While her trophy for Album of the Year for her fantastic Golden Hour would be a powerful victory no matter the date, the serendipity made for an even sweeter win. It wasn’t lost on Musgraves, either. Accepting the award, she shared the coincidence with the audience before expressing her gratitude to her team and collaborators. Later in the broadcast, Musgraves performed a stirring rendition of Golden Hour‘s opening track “Slow Burn.” It was a subtle victory bow for Musgraves, who has never been your typical country artist, often eschewing popular awards show tropes in favor of doing her own thing. And while country radio still hasn’t wised up to the splendor of Golden Hour, at least CMA voters have. B.M.

Kelsea Ballerini52nd Annual CMA Awards, Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

(Photo: Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock)

Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

Best Pop Turn: Kelsea Ballerini

Kelsea Ballerini quickly became a protegée of Taylor Swift’s when she hit the country scene in 2015, and now she’s following Tay into the pop space in a big way. Her sleekly minimalist performance of “Miss Me More,” complete with an avant-garde troupe of dancers, wouldn’t have been out of place on the American Music Awards or even MTV’s VMAs. Taken with her current collaboration with the Chainsmokers on “This Feeling,” it’s clear Ballerini is making a play for the pop world — not exactly a bad thing for country as a whole. Ballerini’s passion for songcraft and light Southern twang still come through in “Miss Me More.” Like her fellow East Tennessee native Dolly Parton before her, Ballerini won’t be leaving country music behind for pop music. She’ll be taking country music with her. H.K.

Chris Stapleton, Maren Morris, Mavis Staples52nd Annual CMA Awards, Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

Chris Stapleton, Maren Morris, Mavis Staples 52nd Annual CMA Awards, Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

Best Collaboration: Chris Stapleton With Maren Morris and Mavis Staples

The best kind of collaborations can bridge the gap between genres without feeling forced. All those elements came together when Chris and Morgane Stapleton joined Maren Morris, Marty Stuart and Mavis Staples for an inspired, soulful medley. The groovy “Friendship” worked perfectly alongside the Staple Singers’ iconic “I’ll Take You There,” backed by a lively gospel choir. By taking two of the most recognizable voices in modern country and melding them with the powerhouse vocals of a true R&B and gospel legend, viewers got a break from the formulaic. L.L.

Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood52nd Annual CMA Awards, Arrivals, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

(Photo: AFF-USA/REX/Shutterstock)

AFF-USA/REX/Shutterstock

WTF: Garth Brooks’ Extreme Close-Ups

When Garth Brooks announced he would be performing a brand new song written about his wife, fellow country star Trisha Yearwood, everyone knew that the performance would mark an especially emotional moment. But the sweet sentiment of Brooks’ personalized love ballad was overshadowed by the intense on-camera close-ups of Yearwood’s reactions. While “Stronger Than Me” showcases how Brooks fearlessly taps into real and relatable feelings, the impact of the music took a backseat to the show’s reaction shots. It was no surprise when tears finally did fall from both Brooks and Yearwood at the end of the performance, but the Wayne’s World-esque extreme close-ups were no party, Garth. L.L.

Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean. Miranda Lambert, left, and Jason Aldean perform 'Drowns the Whiskey'52nd Annual CMA Awards - Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

(Photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Worst A Star Is Bored: Jason Aldean & Miranda Lambert

At a time when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are melting hearts on the silver screen with blockbuster charm and great songs, America just doesn’t have time for lackluster duets. And Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert’s chemistry-bereft performance of Aldean’s Number One “Drowns the Whiskey” was a bona fide snooze. Aldean hardly made eye contact with an eyes-burning-holes-in-her-shoes Lambert, who recently told the Washington Post: “Yes, I had to sing with someone with a penis to get a No. 1.” While, according to the song, “whiskey is supposed to drown the memory,” all it took was the following commercial break to erase this performance from the synapses. A.G.

Ricky Skaggs, Keith Urban. Ricky Skaggs, left, and Keith Urban perform at the 52nd annual CMA Awards at Bridgestone Arena, in Nashville, Tenn52nd Annual CMA Awards - Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

(Photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Best Bluegrass Revival: Ricky Skaggs

While Wednesday night’s performances offered no shortage of pyrotechnics and eye-catching optics, bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs, his band Kentucky Thunder, and nimble-fingered guest pickers Keith Urban (standing in for an ill-stricken Vince Gill), Sierra Hull, Marty Stuart, Brad Paisley, Justin Moses, Carson Peters and Brothers Osborne’s John Osborne, needed nothing more than some banjos, mandolins and guitars to put on a real fireworks show. Dispelling the notion that medleys are a sure-fire plague on award show performances, Skaggs — appearing as one of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s class of 2018 — managed to deliver a thrilling mini-concert and outsized pickin’ party as he traded hot licks with a justice league of country shredders on a whirlwind run through classics “Black Eyed Suzie,” “Highway 40 Blues” and “Country Boy.” A.G.

Thomas Rhett performs 'Life Changes'52nd Annual CMA Awards - Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

Thomas Rhett performs 'Life Changes' 52nd Annual CMA Awards - Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

WTF: Thomas Rhett’s Quiet Horns

Country artists love bringing a big ol’ brass section to an awards show — Lady Antebellum’s done it, and so have the Dixie Chicks and Beyoncé (who did it damn well). So it’s no surprise that the genre-fluid, Motown-loving Thomas Rhett would find a roving horn troupe appealing, particularly for a song like the politely funky “Life Changes.” But horns only work well when they’re actually played live — not mimed over a canned track like a bunch of kids in a YouTube video. Rhett should have done justice to the music he loves by letting the audience actually hear the dynamism of these powerful instruments. (Surely that rad high school marching band could have handled the challenge.) Bonus points for the sweet Third Eye Blind and Rhett Akins posters in his dorm room set, though. M.M.

Lauren Alaina performs 'A Lesson in Leavin',' by the late Dottie West52nd Annual CMA Awards - Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

(Photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Best of the West: Lauren Alaina

Until her recent induction, Dottie West’s absence from the Country Music Hall of Fame was seen by many country die-hards as an outright injustice. But Lauren Alaina did the late singer right, channeling her hall of fame-worthy grit and moxie with an exuberant performance of West’s first Number One hit, 1980’s “A Lesson in Leavin'” — one of a series of performances celebrating the Hall’s class of 2018. But, after only a single verse and chorus, just as America was about to jump off the couch and kick the imaginary sawdust around, the broadcast cut to commercial, a move that, in and of itself, was a downright injustice. A.G.

Marty Stuart, Brad Paisley52nd Annual CMA Awards, Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

(Photo: Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock)

Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

Best MVP: Marty Stuart

How great was it to see Marty Stuart show up onstage for not one, but two performances at the CMA Awards? There he was playing mandolin during Ricky Skaggs’ all-star performance celebrating Skaggs’ induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Stuart switched to electric guitar to play in the band backing Chris Stapleton, Maren Morris and Mavis Staples on “Friendship” and “I’ll Take You There.” Though he scored a string of solo hits in the Nineties, Stuart is no stranger to to the role of band member. He started playing mandolin in bluegrass legend Lester Flatts’ group at age 13 before moving on to join his former father-in-law Johnny Cash’s outfit in the Eighties. H.K.

Ashley Monroe, from left, Angaleena Presley and Miranda Lambert of Pistol Annies perform 'Got My Name Changed Back'52nd Annual CMA Awards - Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

(Photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Best Wake-Up Call: Pistol Annies

One of the more anticipated performances of this year’s CMA Awards was the return of the Pistol Annies — the trio of Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley and Miranda Lambert — who are currently taking a victory lap in celebration of their recently released Number One album Interstate Gospel (which, for the record, was released too late in the year to be eligible for this year’s awards). Standing in front of respective “Hippie,” “Holler” and “Lone Star” microphones, Monroe, Presley and Lambert delivered a fiery take on the track “Got My Name Changed Back.” Whether the performance was a sly wink to those who have speculated about Lambert’s personal life is up for interpretation, but the potency of the trio’s performance isn’t: the Annies woke up what began as a pretty sleepy show, and, best of all, likely inspired a few musical youngsters to take up the washboard. B.M.

Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley. Hosts Carrie Underwood, left, wearing a bubblewrap dress, and Brad Paisley appear at the 52nd annual CMA Awards at Bridgestone Arena, in Nashville, Tenn52nd Annual CMA Awards - Show, Nashville, USA - 14 Nov 2018

Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley joked about Underwood's fall last year during their CMA Awards monologue.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Worst: Brad and Carrie’s Tone-Deaf Monologue

Carrie and Brad’s opening monologue is always its own sort of thing — cute, kinda hokey and politically neutral enough. No one’s expecting a roast, or a statement, or even much more than a slightly uncomfortable chuckle. But last night’s was just plain flat: from the bubble-wrap dress (are traumatic personal injuries really that funny?) to the gross “milk bar” reference (just plain no). But perhaps the worst moments were the half-baked attempts to reference the gender imbalance at country radio, via Paisley’s sarcastic quips about the amount of men in the genre. With zero women nominated for Entertainer of the Year and airplay as dismal as ever, a real statement and message to radio was sorely needed — instead of chuckling at the problem, sweeping it under the rug and then doling out CMA Awards to some stations themselves. Women not getting fair representation isn’t fodder for comedy. It’s a tragedy, honestly. M.M.

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