The 51st CMA Awards aimed for the right balance of festive and respectful when the annual country music show was held Wednesday night in Nashville. It was a particularly trying year for the genre and its community, which lost both fans and artists in different tragedies. For the most part, the CMAs succeeded, thanks to dazzling performances by Brothers Osborne, Eric Church, Rascal Flatts with Dierks Bentley, and Darius Rucker, who led a show-opening singalong of Hootie & the Blowfish’s “Hold My Hand.” Still, the evening wasn’t without its stumbles. Here’s the 10 best, worst and WTF moments of the 2017 CMAs.
While the CMA Awards’ push for unity and harmony wasn’t always the most natural strategy, it did at least result in an uplifting, memorable opening number and some fun moments from the show’s hosts. Following Eric Church’s solemn reading of “Amazing Grace,” Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum joined Darius Rucker to perform his old band Hootie & the Blowfish’s optimistic earworm “Hold My Hand,” which is still lodged in our brains some 20-plus years later. They were quickly joined by an all-star second stage of singers that included Little Big Town, Garth Brooks, Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Luke Bryan, Kelsea Ballerini and Thomas Rhett. Co-hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley kept the playful tone going through their opening remarks, landing some well-placed jabs about Donald Trump’s Twitter habits and donning protective eyewear to sing “Total Eclipse of the Garth.” J.F.
The CMAs expertly addressed many of the losses in the country music community this year, from Brothers Osborne’s salute to Don Williams, to Little Big Town and Jimmy Webb’s graceful nod to Glen Campbell. But none raised goosebumps quite like Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts’ musical remembrance of Montgomery Gentry’s Troy Gentry, who died in a helicopter crash in September. Blending their voices, Bentley and Flatts vocalist Gary LeVox delivered a rousing sing-along of “My Town,” Montgomery Gentry’s 2002 Top Five hit. Gentry’s widow Angie and daughter Kaylee were in the audience, and LeVox sported a Batman T-shirt in honor of Gentry’s favorite superhero. But the lump-in-your-throat moment came when Eddie Montgomery strutted onto the stage, twirling his mic stand and wearing his signature wide-brimmed hat. Guiding the song to a triumphant but bittersweet finish, while early photos of the duo flashed on a screen behind him, Montgomery was visibly emotional – as were those watching in the audience and at home. The moment will go down in CMA history as one of the awards’ most indelible, a classy masterstroke to a fallen friend. C.P.
The CMA Awards’ attempt to rally its fans and heal the wounds of the past few months came from the right place, but it could have benefited from a little nuance. “Unity,” as the show preached, is an abstract word and, without the context of who is uniting and over what exactly, rings a little hollow. Was it liberals and conservatives? Gun control advocates and NRA members? Black and white? On paper – or on Brad Paisley’s T-shirt – unity is a great idea, but only if it’s fleshed out by specifics. Instead, the show hit us over the head with cliches about coming together, talk about how we’re all a family and too on-the-nose performances like Dan + Shay and Lauren Alaina’s cover of the Youngbloods’ “Get Together.” Ironically, the CMA may have created their own chasm: issuing rules to the media just days before the awards restricting political questions. They ultimately rescinded the guidelines and Paisley and co-host Carrie Underwood lampooned the fiasco in their monologue, giving us all something we can agree upon: censorship sucks. J.H
“To Learn Her” isn’t a single – it’s an album cut deep into disc two of The Weight of These Wings, but that didn’t stop Miranda Lambert from playing it for her CMA appearance, or relaxing even more into the traditional country orchestration and letting her pedal steel player, Spencer Cullum Jr., take a marvelously twangy, lengthy solo. Lambert hands-down deserved to win Album of the Year for Wings (and Song of the Year for “Tin Man,” while we’re at it), a record of exquisite emotional resonance and lyrical power, and a performance like this is one of the reasons that proves why. She unfailingly does what she feels is right, and not what’s purely commercial, and holds the music itself above all. And those choices are exactly what make her so brilliant, prize or no prize. M.M.
The CMA Awards is an undeniable glitter parade: sequins galore, sparkles for miles and more rhinestones than cowboys. But some of the night’s best fashion moments came in simple cotton. Namely, a tank top worn by Amanda Shires, in attendance to represent husband and bandmate Jason Isbell, said more than any couture gown ever could – simple and pink, it read “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound,” a lyric from Isbell’s “White Man’s World.” In a business that lets as few unique points of view and left-of-center musical perspectives into the inner circle as it does women, Shires chose to use her CMA moment to make a statement. And though far less political, points to the boys of Midland who came in gorgeous chain-stitched Nudie-like suits, shrugging off the “authenticity” naysayers and going full-court Gram Parsons. Like it or not, that’s who they are – flashy, flamboyant and full of kitschy throwback gold. M.M.
The CMA Awards have often arranged some ace crossover performances, from Chris Stapleton’s star-making duet with Justin Timberlake in 2015 to Beyoncé’s show-stopping medley with the Dixie Chicks in 2016. However, this year’s mash-up from Maren Morris and Niall Horan doesn’t measure up. The performance opened with the pair singing Morris’ “I Could Use a Love Song,” offering smoldering harmonies that hinted at good things to come when the pair embarks on Horan’s Flicker World Tour in 2018. But the standout from Morris’ Hero debut only earned one verse, as the pair quickly pivoted to “Seeing Blind,” a recently released cut from Horan’s album Flicker that features guest vocals from Morris. The two gave a capable performance, but it was too focused on the former One Direction star and not enough on Morris – you know, the actual country singer onstage. B.M.
Let’s say this first and foremost: 2017 was Church’s time to win Entertainer of the Year. After a massive, record-breaking tour designed for the fans and the fans alone, he deserved the honor (love you Garth, but sorry). But when you expect him to go one way, he swerves to the other, which is probably what took him out of easy contention – and what set the path for his stellar performance of “Chattanooga Lucy” from 2015’s Mr. Misunderstood. Church always favors the real over the perfect, and this performance, full of gospel fury and dynamite backing vocals from the McCrary Sisters and bandmember Joanna Cotten, was pure Southern rock soul. And while Keith Urban can sing about the “Female,” Church paid his own tribute to the fairer sex by simply sharing the stage with more women than anyone else – something he does regularly not to send a message, but to level the playing field with action, not words. M.M.
Midway through her performance of “Legends,” Kelsea Ballerini paused, smiled and welcomed Reba McEntire onstage to tackle the song’s second verse. From there, the two singers swapped harmonies throughout the rest of the tune, struggling for a chemistry that never managed to solidify. The duet must’ve made sense on paper — a real-life legend teaming up with a twentysomething legend-in-the-making, offering both a vote of confidence and a symbolic passing of the country-pop torch — but the execution was awkward, with flat notes and vocal acrobatics that missed their mark. While far from a legendary fail, the collab felt like a missed opportunity for two of country’s leading ladies. R.C.
Along with delivering one of the most heartfelt and energetic acceptance speeches of the night for their Vocal Duo win, Brothers Osborne turned in one of the all-out best performances of the CMAs. Kicking off with the Pawn Shop Van Halen rocker “It Ain’t My Fault,” siblings TJ and John earned a lot of love from the rowdy audience, with many fans on their feet as the stomping drumbeat resonated throughout the arena. But near the end of the song, the Bros threw a curveball, transitioning into a tribute to the late Don Williams with a cover of his beloved 1978 hit “Tulsa Time.” It’s not the first time the Osbornes have tackled the Williams gem, but, on a national stage, it perfectly illustrated the guys’ country cred. B.M.
Noticeably absent from the night’s roll call were Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley. The FGL boys lost out in the Vocal Duo of the Year race to Brothers Osborne for the second year in a row, and – more notably – didn’t appear to be in attendance. Perhaps they assumed they were out of the running, despite having a particularly successful and high-profile year. Since the last CMA Awards, FGL scored a pair of Platinum Number Ones in the Tim McGraw collab “May We All” and the Backstreet Boys mash-up “God, Your Mama, and Me,” headlined their first round of stadiums (with Nelly and BSB) and even appeared on tracks by the Chainsmokers, Bebe Rexha and Hailee Steinfeld. We have to admit: we missed the bros, whose personal flair and latest single “Smooth” would have injected some laid-back fun into a night of heavy hearts. C.P.