The 50th CMA Awards had viral performances, heartfelt speeches and surprise cameos (Beyoncé!). Not surprisingly, it ran well past its usual three-hour run time, a rarity for the slickly produced show. But the overage was worth it – mostly. Fans were treated to thrilling Keith Urban guitar fireworks, an underdog upset by Brothers Osborne and recreations of some of the best songs in country music's history. But they also had to endure some god-awful fashion choices and a monologue that fell short of the mark. Here's the good, bad and what-were-they-thinking moments of the 2016 CMAs.
TJ and John Osborne, like pretty much everyone else, didn't see their victory coming. Florida Georgia Line had enjoyed another massive year of hit singles and touring – why wouldn't they extend their reign as Vocal Duo of the Year? Let this be a lesson to never assume, because ever-mercurial CMA voters decided to pass the torch to a pair of brothers from Deale, Maryland, with a lone Number One to their credit in "Stay a Little Longer." But maybe winning is about more than just having hits, as Brothers Osbornes' 2016 debut album Pawn Shop is one of the year's flat-out most enjoyable releases, no matter where you sit on the country/not country spectrum. Their surprise triumph was made all the more sweet with a totally unprepared, exultant acceptance speech that charmed everyone with its sincere display of emotion and gratitude. Long live BROS country.
We used to look forward to the opening monologue from our favorite camp counselors Brad and Carrie. But this year, the pair’s ninth hosting, we couldn’t wait for it to end – kind of like the 2016 presidential election. The Clinton and Trump campaigns provided most of the inspiration for the duo's bon mots, and while that should have been more than enough to work with, the hosts, or rather the writers, blew it. A joke about the show being rigged and Brad not accepting the results of a Crooked Carrie win wasn’t even clever or cutting enough to merit an angry, reactionary tweet from the real Donald Trump. Sad! A painfully too long bit in which Brad and Carrie riffled through their countrified gift basket of deplorables was, well, deplorably unfunny. Luke Bryan beer goggles? Willie Nelson’s Potted Meat (“I’ve got the munchies now,” quipped Brad)? Girl Crush Hard Soda? Sorry, but no LOLs awarded. As the CMAs embark on another 50 years, we only have one request: Make the opening monologue great again!
If last night was all about honoring country tradition, there was one recent trend that seemed to get the boot (or the stiletto): favoring the ol' boys club in both awards categories and performances. This time, girls ran that mutha. Beyoncé and Dixie Chicks gave a fiddle-shaped middle finger to the establishment with their "Daddy Lessons"/"Long Time Gone" duet. Carrie Underwood used her performance to shine a light on the lesser-known Lindi Ortega, Lindsay Ell, Runaway June and Orianthi. Maren Morris brought the audience to "Church" (and snagged New Artist of the Year), while Dolly Parton's "girlfriends" – Kacey Musgraves, Reba, Jennifer Nettles, Martina McBride and Underwood – offered a medley of her biggest hits and awarded her the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. Even squad queen Taylor Swift made an appearance. Nate Silver might want to pay attention: maybe this is the true indication that a girl will really run the world come Tuesday.
The hype surrounding Maren Morris is real. That was the takeaway from the 26-year-old’s breakout performance of her gospel-country sleeper hit "My Church." With help from the McCrary Sisters and members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Morris belted out a World Series-worthy homerun vocal and doubled down on the tune's Southern gospel, briefly transforming the Bridgestone Arena into a Alabama tabernacle in the process. Minutes later, Morris took home her first CMA Award for New Artist of the Year, and her emotional acceptance speech was the stuff dreams are made of. "Y’all, I can’t win this award right after performing, I’m gonna fall apart,” the teary-eyed singer said, before composing herself to thank the folks that got her there. “This is so crazy,” she said before dropping names. “I have amazing seats tonight. … Last year, I sat across the street at a bar and watched this show."
In a competitive category, smart money was on Dierks Bentley's Black to take Album of the Year – not Eric Church's brilliant surprise Mr. Misunderstood. After all, the Chief didn't play by any Music Row rules when he released the surprise LP, putting it out with no warning during last year's awards week, sending it straight to his fan club first (on vinyl, nonetheless) and doing zero press. None of that is a recipe for a big win, but Mr. Misunderstood, arguably Church's best work to date, deserved the prize. It would have been easy for the mainstream country community to misunderstand this masterpiece, but, luckily, they got the message.
Admirably, the CMAs did their best to give as many artists as much face time as possible with an overabundance of medleys. But all those mash-ups are a double-edged sword. Sure, viewers get to hear Carrie Underwood, Reba and Alan Jackson sing some of the greatest songs in country music's canon, but it also means the genre's best vocalists are relegated to one measly verse. To fans, it's as unsatisfying as dining in a tapas restaurant. Even the opening all-star number, while undeniably moving, couldn't help but feel pieced together, a string of famous lyrics served in small portions. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood's mix of romantic duets came closest to hitting the mark, thanks to the couple's over-the-top affection for each other, but overall, the medleys were just meh. Perhaps it's indicative of our increasingly playlist-based way of listening to music, but we still prefer our performances the way we do our albums: as complete bodies of work.
Orianthi brought hair-metal histrionics and Reagan-era riffage to Carrie Underwood's "Dirty Laundry," but it was Keith Urban's understated "Blue Ain't Your Color" that made him the evening's true guitar hero. His Telecaster was silent for the entire first verse, with Urban swelling his way into the mix during the chorus. He unleashed some fireworks during the song's midsection, though, mixing bends and bluesy bursts of fretwork into a solo that clocked in at less than 20 seconds, making it shorter than some of Beyoncé's glory notes. On a night filled with showboating and cameos, Urban kept things understated, packing a punch with less decibels and stage props than virtually anyone else onstage.
It's not taking anything away from Chris Stapleton to note that folks are more likely to still be talking more about his career-making duet with Justin Timberlake from last year's show than his duet with Dwight Yoakam in the final stretch of the 50th CMAs. The pair took on Willie Nelson and Ray Charles' "Seven Spanish Angels" and delivered perhaps the most patient, spacious and faithfully Countrypolitan performance of a show that was trying desperately to revere its roots. Stapleton delivered the kind of soulful, stirring display of his pipes that made him a shoo-in for Male Vocalist of the Year. "I've gotten to be a fan so much tonight," he said in his speech. "I've cried just watching everybody and the music I grew up on … Country music people are the best people in the world."
Weeks before the CMA Awards, the organization politely asked attendees to wear their formal best in honor of the show's 50th anniversary. Apparently some guys didn't get the memo. While Eric Church and Tim McGraw cut sharp, suave figures in crisp, clean tuxes, other artists and presenters alike showed up as if they were headed to a bachelor party. We get that Kenny Chesney is the cool Caribbean cowboy, but accepting one of the evening's special trophies – the Pinnacle Award – in a v-neck T-shirt and slacks made him look like he just hurried in from his shift at Banana Republic. And while we applaud Cole Swindell's strong tux game, it loses much of it swag when paired with that ubiquitous baseball hat. (Newsflash: no one cares if you have hair or not.) But the most egregious look goes to presenter Matthew McConaughey, who showed up as if fresh off the ranch in a nondescript button-up and denim, reminding all of us that there's nothing alright about dad jeans.
Kudos go to the Country Music Association itself for assembling yet another show that managed the difficult task of being fresh, diverse and still respectful of country's unique history. Building off the stunning highs of Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake's collaboration in 2015, the 2016 edition pulled out all the stops. Titans like George Strait, Reba McEntire and Alan Jackson enjoyed welcome and overdue stage time. Stapleton, Maren Morris, and Miranda Lambert all gave performances that hinted at exciting possibilities for country's future. The Dixie Chicks returned from a long, wintry absence to collaborate with a woman who is arguably the single most important entertainer on the planet at present and somehow the arena still had room to accommodate Taylor Swift. Fans and insiders will inevitably grumble about country singers who were omitted from the performance lineup in favor of pop stars and those conversations are absolutely worth having, considering that country is typically underrepresented at other popular music events. But like a microcosm of our national experience, the impulse to exclude the outside world isn't necessarily the best way forward. When country shakes off these insecurities to show the many different ways – from Chris Stapleton to Maren Morris – it can thrive in the broader pop context, everyone benefits.