It was an evening of the unexpected (a gay-friendly tune wins Song of the Year!) and expected (Vince Gill cries… again), coupled with heartfelt acceptance speeches and heartier performances. The 48th annual CMA Awards wrapped Wednesday evening with jokes for today's watercooler fodder, wins for the history books, several pitch-perfect performances (see: Carrie Underwood) and some refreshingly imperfect songs, too. Here are the 12 moments we're still buzzing about.
Last year's CMA Entertainer of the Year George Strait effectively ended his touring career with an attendance-record-setting, Texas-sized stadium show this summer. Less than two weeks later, Luke Bryan headlined a stadium for the first time — one of many reasons it's not so surprising the "Play It Again" singer beat out Miranda, Blake, Keith and even King George himself to take home the CMA's top honor. But when a deliriously overjoyed, seemingly shocked Bryan took center stage to accept the award, his first words were for another one of country music's kings. "Well, first of all, I've never met Garth," Bryan said, turning toward four-time Entertainer of the Year Garth Brooks, who presented the award. "Hey Garth! Can I hug you again?" Ever the magnanimous megastar, Brooks happily obliged. Remarkably, this was Bryan's first-ever CMA win, and that's cool. But can anyone on the planet say they've got a better 'meeting Garth Brooks' story? That might be even cooler.
Harmonically, everything went to hell as soon as Eric Church and George Strait's tag-teamed version of "Cowboys Like Us" wallowed into its first chorus like the town drunk, stumbling from note to note. Perhaps one of the backup singers couldn't find the right part, or maybe the blame fell on Church, whose aviators couldn't hide the excitement of a fan who'd been asked to sing with one of his idols. As "Cowboys Like Us" lurched along, though, the pitchy performance became pretty endearing, with Church and Strait sounding less like two A-listers singing on prime-time television and more like a pair of half-lit good ol' boys swapping songs and swigs around a campfire. If that's not country music, we don't know what is.
For as consistent in his creativity and unassuming in his manner that he is, it's easy to take Vince Gill for granted. Fortunately, that wasn't the case last night, as the CMA bestowed upon Gill the Irving Waugh of Excellence Award and put together a moving montage of stars such as Merle Haggard and James Taylor giving him props. Gill, as he is wont to do, teared up as he watched from his seat in the audience — and why he wasn't seated smack dab in the front row is beyond us. When it was finally time for him to make his own remarks, Gill talked at length not about himself, but about the man for whom the award is named and praised the camaraderie between guys like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and their peers. Bemoan the preponderance of pop in country music all you like, but cherish the fact that a true legend — and gentleman — is still working today.
Little Big Town's throwdown with Ariana Grande was an outsized country-pop mash-up spectacle, but the quartet's collaboration with Miranda Lambert later in the show was all subdued grace. Harmonizing on the woozy "Smokin' and Drinkin'," a standout track from Lambert's Album of the Year Platinum, the five singers turned in the most evocative performance of the night, summoning the nostalgia of the "back in the day" lyrics while making the song feel entirely urgent and of the moment. Points for the best onstage fashion of the night too: LBT's Kimberly Schlapman in a furry skirt and Karen Fairchild in floor-length fringe, and Lambert in an Elvis-worthy golden-bird belt. Plus, the lead guitarist rocked a sweet vintage Farrah Fawcett tee. Ah, nostalgia.
After kicking off his day with a 6:45 a.m. soundcheck and rain-soaked performance on Good Morning America, Keith Urban bookended the CMAs by cruising through "Somewhere in My Car" during the awards show. He seemed to have some trouble reaching every high note in the song's rapid-fire chorus, but all criticism flew out the window when he launched into the awe-inspiring guitar solo, making ample use of what might be the only wah-wah pedal in CMA history. On a night filled with backing tracks, Urban kept things raw and imperfect, trading the polish of an Auto-Tuned performance for the punch of something real.
Miranda Lambert might still be Blake Shelton's soulmate (The pair's love endured facing off as Entertainment of the Year nominees!), but last night the chemistry was all about Shelton and another blonde — Ashley Monroe. Like on Shelton's latest, Bringing Back the Sunshine, Lambert's Pistol Annie's bandmate dueted with the The Voice judge on the soaring country power ballad "Lonely Tonight." While Shelton wailed with his trademark bad-boy-with-soft-side Southern tenor, Monroe upped the ante, emoting with rafter-reaching aplomb and turning in arguably the finest vocal performance of the night. As for Shelton and Lambert, while they lost out to Luke Bryan in the Entertainer category, each respectively walked away with Male Vocalist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year trophies for the fifth consecutive year — not a bad consolation.
If Paisley were scripting the performances, Little Big Town and Ariana Grande might have written "One Less Pontoon Without You." If Grande's "The Way" piano sample were cheaper, we might have learned how "Boondocks" sounds over Brenda Russell. As it stands, we saw the two acts play their most recent hits – "Day Drinking" first, then "Bang Bang" – while wearing Tron-like LED dresses and leather jackets. Quoth Carrie Underwood: "That was amazing."
At April's ACM Awards, Florida Georgia Line filled the stage with over-the-top props — pyrotechnics, ramps, BMX riders, Luke Bryan. Last night, they stripped down, sitting in chairs while they strummed Anything Goes' lead single "Dirt," offering the most country original performance of the show's first half. Floor-seat reaction shots suggested that the Nashville establishment was feeling this development, possibly hoping that the Duo of the Year might soon tone down its tattooed aggression and return to drinking a brand of whiskey that doesn't contain cinnamon corn syrup.
Forget press releases, Twitter or one of those cut-the-cake-and-see-if-it's-blueberry-or-strawberry-inside reveal parties. Carrie Underwood chose to announce the sex of her baby, due this spring, with a pretty funny bit on the CMAs. After whispering the gender to a beaming Brad Paisley, her co-host quipped, "I know something you don't know… Suck it, TMZ!" But Paisley then "accidentally" referred to Baby Fisher as "him." ("Hashtag, Brad blew it.") Underwood also made the TV debut of her new single, "Something in the Water," taking fans to church with a little "Amazing Grace" thrown into the tune and proving with her flawless delivery that she's the female vocalist of her generation… of any genre.
These days, it's common practice for country labels to fill out their release schedules with cross-generational tributes to aging stars. Cool concept, only most of the songs turn out so reverent that they begin to sound phoned-in. Last night, however, the Band Perry's "Gentle on My Mind" (a single off the soundtrack for Glen Campbell tour doc I'll Be Me) seemed anything but: Kimberly's vocals were delicate and precise, Reid's bass gave the tune an unexpected bump and Neil's mandolin solo was a secret show highlight. Some may eventually point to Luke Bryan's Entertainer of the Year win as bro-country's high-water mark, but remember, this 1967 classic was the night's only tune to use the words "back road."
It was a shot heard 'round the country world, as underdog Kacey Musgraves beat out superstar competition the likes of Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, Dierks Bentley and Lee Brice for Song of the Year with "Follow Your Arrow" — a breezy tune about how it's OK to smoke weed, be gay and be yourself. CMA voters definitely made a statement to those who criticize the genre as nothing but songs about trucks and tailgate parties. "Do you guys realize what this means for country music?" Musgraves said upon accepting the honor. "I wrote this song with Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that this award means so much because our genre was built on simple, good songs about real life."
Co-hosting the show for the seventh year in a row, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley's Jimmy Fallon-meets-modern-day-Hee Haw-style opening monologue of pun-rife topical parody, self-deprecating skits and hilariously hammy zingers is an institution within an institution at this point. Once again, the pair wasn't afraid to push the "Too soon?" envelope, taking on Ebola panic by recasting Dolly Parton's "Jolene" Weird Al-style as "Quarantined." They didn't pull punches roasting a front-row-seated George Strait right to his face — "I'm pretty sure when someone rides away they're supposed to go somewhere," ribbed Paisley. And they were damned sure not scared to take on Taylor Swift's recent breakup with country music, awkwardly coining a new mental health condition endemic to Nashville, Postpartum Taylor Swift Disorder (or PPTSD). "Why isn’t our government doing something about this?” Paisley asked about the "disease." "I'm pretty sure that's why the Democrats lost the Senate," Underwood reasoned.