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2018 CMT Music Awards: 10 Best, Worst and WTF Moments

From the royal silliness of the pre-taped opening to Kelsea Ballerini’s marvelous back-to-basics performance

carrie underwood

Carrie Underwood's performance of "Cry Pretty" was one of the high points of the 2018 CMT Music Awards.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

The 2018 CMT Music Awards were a head-spinning two-plus hours of colorful performances, dad jokes and wild juxtapositions. 

It was a show where Kelsea Ballerini’s simplified and stunning rendition of “I Hate Love Songs” shared screen time with the smoke and mirrors of the Backstreet Boys. Where well-choreographed productions were offset by Carly Pearce’s spontaneous emotion. And where Carrie Underwood channeled Axl Rose in her strongest rendition yet of the power ballad “Cry Pretty.” Here’s the 10 best, worst and most WTF moments of the annual salute to country music videos.

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WTF: The Royal Wedding Opening

Things went off the rails at the very top of the CMT Awards with an out-there pre-taped spoof of the recent Royal Wedding. Hosts Little Big Town served as anchors of a fake news report claiming the Windsors were keeping the wedding after-party going in Nashville. First, they threw it to wayward correspondents Midland, who ended up hijacking Kelsea Ballerini’s bachelorette party on one of Nashville’s many rolling party barges. Just as the guys in Midland were about to make out with each other, the camera cut to Blake Shelton reporting live from the entrance to his newly-opened bar, Ole Red. (Definitely not an organic product placement there) Thankfully, Jon Pardi, Dustin Lynch and Jake Owen interrupted Blake’s mini-commercial by showing up in matching, shockingly tight pink T-shirts, because, why not? The fever dream of a sketch continued with Darius Rucker dressed like Queen Elizabeth and Florida Georgia Line riding in a horse-drawn carriage dressed as Princes Harry and William. FGL’s Tyler Hubbard even sported a skullcap to look like the rapidly balding William. Way to keep it weird, guys! H.K.

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Best: Dierks Bentley and Brothers Osborne Bring the Heat

With “Burning Man,” Dierks Bentley proves he can still cut a collaboration with a heartbeat. Enlisting Brothers Osborne for this barn-burner from his new album The Mountain was a masterstroke – and compelled him to elevate his own game. Their live performance on the CMTs lost none of its fire, with a devilish John Osborne re-creating a blistering solo and his brother TJ dropping those delicious baritone notes as he stalked the stage. But in the end, this is Bentley’s song and he delivered it with a workingman’s commitment that matched his plain white T-shirt. If the lyrics are about that searching period that comes mid-life, Bentley has clearly found himself. J.H.

backstreet boys

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Worst: Backstreet Boys Steal a Performance Slot

Let’s be clear: Backstreet Boys are not a country act. Like, not by any metric. No amount of signal boosts from Florida Georgia Line can change this. Not even a cowboy hat on the meticulously manscaped head of A.J. McLean. Maybe CMT giving the boy-turned-man band minutes of dedicated screen time on their own and not as collaborators with an established country act would make sense were they launching a country crossover record or something. But until that happens (and clearly it might), Backstreet Boys are gonna Backstreet Boys: which means sweet harmonies and graciously, uh, in-sync choreography to their new single “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” It’s not that BSB didn’t nail a perfectly formidable performance of an actually pretty decent pop banger, and you can’t blame them for seizing the chance to promote themselves on national television. It’s that when the reunited Sugarland or the always electric Keith Urban aren’t performing on a country awards show, why is there time for this? A.G.

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Best: Kelsea Ballerini Goes Back to Basics

Kelsea Ballerini has already proven she can pull off highly-produced, eye-popping performances at previous awards shows, so it was nice to see her strip things down with a “girl next door” performance of her Fifties doo-wop-inspired current single, “I Hate Love Songs.” Wearing a denim shirt and jeans, Ballerini tapped into her East Tennessee roots for this straightforward, simple reading of the song. Kudos to Kelsea for letting the music take center stage without any distracting bells and whistles – resulting in one of the night’s most moving performances. H.K.

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Best: Dan + Shay’s Buzzworthy “Tequila”

In a rare instance of nice guys finishing first, Dan + Shay had a big night on Wednesday, clenching the Duo Video of the Year award for their cinematic “Tequila” clip and then giving a knockout performance of the tune during the show. Opening with Shay Mooney seated at a piano and flanked by his singing partner Dan Smyers, the performance quickly scaled up to arena-sized proportions with their band providing a lush, almost orchestral arrangement. One of country’s most gifted lead vocalists, Mooney absolutely crushed his parts, easily shifting from the pillow-soft delivery of the opening verse to the cathartic, hurricane force wails in the song’s climax. Even their fellow nominees Brothers Osborne, who have scooped up every other Duo award lately, were elated: during the telecast, John Osborne bear- hugged both men as they passed on their way to collect their trophy. J.F.

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WTF: What Was That Weeping Sound?

In an awards show where the Backstreet Boys seem to make sense as a performer, it was damn near out-of-place to hear a little crying fiddle and weeping steel. But, lo and behold, there they were, adding some classic country cred to two of the night’s centerpiece performances. Darius Rucker’s show-closer “Straight to Hell,” a Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ cover he sang with Luke Bryan, Charles Kelley and Jason Aldean, made room for a tasty fiddle solo. And Aldean’s “Drown the Whiskey” moved along on a slippery steel guitar lick. For all the grief Aldean catches for blurring country’s edges with R&B fare like “Burnin’ It Down,” there was something defiant about him performing such a clearly honky-tonk ballad, proving he’s still the guy who cut the epic heartbreaker “The Truth” nearly a decade ago. J.H.

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Best: Carrie Underwood Puts the Power in Power Ballad

Carrie Underwood revamped the stage setting from her previous TV performances of “Cry Pretty” for this appearance, but who could pay attention to the lighting or those thousands of crystals hanging from the ceiling when Underwood is delivering this vocal performance? The song is a narrative breakthrough for the entertainer since she is singing about her own struggles in the first person, and it’s fascinating to watch her gain more power both as a performer and vocalist with every new performance of “Cry Pretty.” By the end of the song, Carrie was in full-on Axl Rose mode, letting her huge voice soar and weaving side-to-side. This is what it looks like when a superstar continues to evolve as an artist. H.K.

Lindsay Ell

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Worst: Blink and You Missed the Side Stage Artists

Can we just do away with shoehorning in these abridged, 45-second-then-cut-to-commercial performances by up-and-comers? Even future main-stage stars like Lanco, Devin Dawson and Carly Pearce – who had to the unenviable take of trying to make an impact after Kelly Clarkson sang a rock-radio staple with a gospel choir ­­– can’t help but look anything but small and not really part of the actual show on a sponsor-branded stage in a corner of the arena. With only, at best, half a verse and a chorus to work with, artists have to try painfully hard to look like they’re in the middle of an impassioned performance. Just ask Lindsay Ell, whose lack of a longer slot for her fiery “Criminal” was exactly that. A.G.

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Best: Carly Pearce’s Real Deal Speech

Some of the best awards show moments are those when artists display genuine emotion – which can be in short supply at such a well-polished production as the CMT Awards. But Carly Pearce couldn’t help but be her spontaneous self when she won Breakthrough Video of the Year for “Every Little Thing,” crying as she walked from her seat to the stage. In a trembling acceptance speech, Pearce told the crowd, “I sat up in the stands with my mom so many years wondering if I would ever get here. Fans, you have absolutely changed everything for me, so thank you for voting for me.” Her mic-drop moment was yet to come though: “I just have to say one more thing,” she concluded, “to the guy that broke my heart, thank you!” B.M.

sam hunt

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Best: Sam Hunt Takes a Honky-Tonk Tour

Country fans have been waiting for Sam Hunt’s follow-up to “Body Like a Back Road” for over a year now, so it’s fitting he took his performance of new track “Downtown’s Dead” straight to them. Hunt kicked off the performance surrounded by fans while sitting at the bar in Legend’s Corner on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. He then walked out and stuck his head in the door of a few other honky-tonks, including Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, before finishing the performance on a massive stage in the middle of the street. It was just the kind of out-of-the-box concept we’ve come to expect from Hunt, and it stuck close to the song’s storyline of a guy feeling alone in the crowd when he’s out on the town without his old love. Now, let’s hope he’s putting some of that creativity into making a full-length album. Because it’s been nearly four years since his last, and so far only, collection of songs, Montevallo. H.K.

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