Every underdog has his day. On Wednesday night, the 2015 CMA Awards belonged not to the chart-topping bros and queen bees of country music, but to a handful of songwriters who’ve spent the past decade working behind the scenes. Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsay — the composers of Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” — watched their controversial chart-topper win awards for both Song and Single of the Year, while Chris Stapleton, a songwriting vet with a mammoth, mountain-moving voice, took home three awards of his own.
“This is an unbelievable thing, and I’m not going to take it lightly,” he said during a humble, emotional acceptance speech for Male Vocalist of the Year, his final win in a night that also included trophies for New Artist and Album of the Year. Raw, ragged and written almost entirely by Stapleton, Traveller — his debut as a solo artist — is the antithesis of a slick, modern country-pop project, making its success at the CMA Awards as surprising as it is well-deserved.
A bit shy at the acceptance podium, Stapleton came alive during a pair of show-stealing duets with Memphis boy Justin Timberlake, starting with a harmony-heavy version of George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” and peaking with an electric, elastic take on Timberlake’s “Drink You Away.” Despite voices that couldn’t be more different — Timberlake’s light and nimble; Stapleton’s heavy and hard-hitting — the two formed the best ad-hoc duo of the night, beating out oddball pairings like Thomas Rhett and Fall Out Boy while eliciting some of the best crowd reactions of the night. (Dig Keith Urban’s stank face during one of Timberlake’s acrobatic vocal runs.)
“Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton, thank you very much! I’m gonna go home and practice,” Miranda Lambert said after winning her sixth consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year title, coincidentally taking the stage in a Stapleton t-shirt. Meanwhile, Blake Shelton — who was also gunning for a sixth consecutive Vocalist win — came up empty handed, losing the award to the same guy whose name was splashed across his ex-wife’s chest.
Although he didn’t take home any trophies, Eric Church celebrated the release of Mr. Misunderstood — an album that, until Tuesday afternoon, few people knew existed — by hitting the stage twice, first to jumpstart the show alongside Hank Williams, Jr., and later to premiere the title track of his newest record. On a night filled with ornate set designs and choreographed dance routines, Church kept things simple, rooting himself in front of the microphone for a purposely glitz-free performance. Also subscribing to the less-is-more mentality were the four members of Little Big Town, who — one year after driving up the CMAs’ electric bill with a neon-lit Ariana Grande collab — performed “Girl Crush” in a simple horizontal line, relying on the power of the song itself to pack a punch.
The evening’s most down-home performance occurred not on the main stage, but from a raised platform in the middle of the audience, where Maddie & Tae strummed their way through an abbreviated version of “Girl in a Country Song.” Driven forward by acoustic guitar and fiddle, the performance was worlds away from, say, the amplified bro-bombast of Jason Aldean’s “Gonna Know We Were Here,” whose delivery felt a bit cold despite the Metallica-sized blasts of pyro that lit up the stage. Kacey Musgraves’ “Dimestore Cowgirl” kept things old-school, too, thanks to a kitschy, beauty pageant-worthy backdrop and a vocal delivery that, unlike performances by some of the evening’s other country queens, was blissfully free of AutoTune.
Although his thunder was unintentionally stolen by Stapleton, who won his third award minutes before the 2015 Entertainer of the Year was announced, Luke Bryan took home the CMA’s biggest honor for the second year in a row. “Wrap? They’re telling me to wrap, but I ain’t wrapping,” said Bryan, who took time to thank his wife, touring band, creative team and supporters during a gracious acceptance speech. It was a moving finale, but the 2015 CMA Awards — easily the show’s most entertaining and unexpected telecast in a decade — left its mark not by celebrating the genre’s biggest money-makers, but by shining a light on the dark horses.