The most-watched program on TV Wednesday night was ABC's 2015 CMA Awards broadcast, with 13.6 million viewers. And while a couple million of those people might've been cringing at a Brad Paisley joke or two, the sold-out crowd at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena was in stitches. Our in-house reporters bring you those "guess you had to be there" tidbits from the show, while our backstage crew captures water cooler moments from behind the scenes.
The millions who tuned in to watch the CMAs from home know Kacey Musgraves' performance of "Dime Store Cowgirl" was great, but they'll never know just how great. You really had to be there, in the room, to marvel at how well the perma-rhinestone-bedazzled singer used the cavernous Bridgestone Arena to her advantage. The big-picture visual — a vivid cinema screen framing the singer and her band in soothing shots of sun-kissed desert skies and child-like psychedelic animations of ponies and such — looked stunning. And the song — a bittersweet-sounding reflection on preserving core identity in the face of newfound fame, basically her answer to "Mississippi Girl" or "Jenny From the Block" — sounded rich and full, captivating the crowd in a listening experience that really came as a relief in the midst of other performers' shrill, off-balanced backing tracks. A.G.
Typically, watching an arena-sized awards show in person is more an experience of seeing how the sausage is made than it is of feeling closer to the action. The lighting, production and onstage antics are all crafted to look and sound better on camera than they do in person, and rarely do the one-take live-music-video-like performances lift the fans in the flesh to a fever-pitch moment of collective transcendence. But Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake did exactly that, over and over again for eight minutes and six seconds, as they traded licks and verses on a double-shot of Stapleton's heartsick country waltz "Tennessee Whiskey" chased with Timberlake's slinky, sad-bastard modern-funk classic "Drink You Away." The crowd inside Bridgestone Arena had no idea what to expect going into this pairing, and were thoroughly taken by surprise by what they got. Some jaws hit the floor, while others widened to let out cheers and screams, and by the end everyone in the house was breathless. This performance wasn't a glossy, glorified TV taping, but rather an incredible mini-concert busting at the seams. A.G.
Backstage in the press room, Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley confessed it wasn't easy getting caught in the embers of the Stapleton-Timberlake firestorm. "They're two of the best, vocally, as songwriters, as artists, we both look up to them a lot," said Hubbard. "We've been to Justin Timberlake shows, we've seen Chris perform many times so, probably the toughest act to follow of the night." Still, he said of the duo's performance of its current single "Confession," "We gave it all we had and I think it was a cool follow-up. I think we both took everybody to church." But maybe not for the service they were expecting. S.R.
Many of the live performances, starting with Keith Urban's "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16," felt like giant sing-alongs, with audience members — including many industry pros themselves — stretching their vocal chords as much as their legs. Perhaps most surprising, though, was that many in the audience seemed to know every lyric to Eric Church's "Mr. Misunderstood," a song that was released the previous morning, with no fanfare and even less digital presence. M.L.
During the show's opening monologue, Brad Paisley made a couple tired jokes about this "cray cray" modern world we live in. (Yes, he really did say "cray cray," and really did sing it to the tune of Patsy Cline's "Crazy.") One example: Paisley couldn't believe haughty blowhard Donald Trump was the current GOP frontrunner (he's actually not, and co-host Carrie Underwood corrected him). The in-house response was so loud to the Trump mention, however, that it was hard to tell if people were shouting "woo!" or "boo!" We'll know in a year from now. A.G. & M.L.
The commercial-break stage prep for Brad Paisley's "Country Nation" was hilarious, with dozens of college mascots adjusting their headpieces and wobbling into place on stage. Audience members couldn't help pointing to their favorites. But when ESPN's College GameDay hosts Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit tried to get fans inside the arena to cheer for their favorite teams during the song's announcement, the reaction was unenthusiastic, with the audience appearing far more willing to applaud music more than football (perhaps a first in the South). And when the GameDay duo tried to raise the Alabama rallying cry, there were precious few takers — and even a few boos. Once Paisley name-checked the (Tennessee) Volunteers during the song, though, he was able to coax a little more love from the home-state crowd. M.L.
When the night's big winner Chris Stapleton hit the stage in the press room, his wife and harmony partner Morgane sweetly dabbed at his face and checked his look before he faced the cameras. When he fielded a question about where he would store his trio of trophies he noticed she had left the room and joked, "She’s clearing off a place to put the trophies, I guess." It was clear he was gobsmacked by the entire night. "I didn't even think I'd be nominated for anything tonight, let alone win one or two or three of them so it certainly wasn’t anything I had thought about. . . We'll find a place for them I'm sure." S.R.
When you're deemed the next Taylor Swift by multiple media outlets, it's inevitable that multiple media outlets will start speculating on your dating life. That's already happened to Kelsea Ballerini, so her choice of dates to the CMA Awards had people on the edge of their seats. Her choice, however, had people leaving their seats for some tissue. The Best New Artist nominee was arm-in-arm all night with 17-year-old Allie Allen, who is battling cancer. The two beauties met at a Country Cares for St. Jude's event last year, and the "Love Me Like You Mean" it singer invited her new friend to the CMA's via a tweet back in October: "I know you're busy kicking cancer's butt, but I need you to come to Nashville on November 4th," she posted.
Even though he won the biggest award of the night — Entertainer of the Year, for the second consecutive year — Bryan spent a good chunk of his time in the press room praising Chris Stapleton, who wrote Bryan's hit "Drink a Beer" with Jim Beavers. "It's so fun watching the birth of an artist happen like that, a coming-out party," he said. "We in this room know Stapleton and a select group of people that really, really seek out music have heard Stapleton through the years, but when Stapleton gets the opportunity for it to be launched like it just happened, that's so fun to watch for music and for him." Bryan also lavished praise on Little Big Town, who will join him on tour next year, and called Karen Fairchild, "One of the finest vocalists on the planet." S.R.