Back in September, the Country Music Association teased that tonight’s 50th awards were going to be bigger than ever with their star-studded, music-television-on-steroids “Forever Country” video, which was packed to the gills with the genre’s most omnipresent talents. And they delivered – and then some – with appearances not only from mainstays like co-host Carrie Underwood, New Artist winner Maren Morris and living legends like Vince Gill, but from pop and R&B queen Beyoncé. But Bey, hitting the stage with the Dixie Chicks, wasn’t the only shocker of the night: Eric Church and Brothers Osborne, underdogs in their categories, triumphed with unexpected wins, and Chris Stapleton, after a string of victories in 2015, snagged Male Vocalist of the Year, all setting the next 50 years off on solid footing.
For all the talk of the changing landscape of country, the awards established right out of the gate that this was going to be a night set to honor not just the genre’s current stars, but its past and future – cemented by Garth Brooks coming back strong to take Entertainer of the Year for the first time since 1998. And when they begin a show with Gill tackling Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” alongside Haggard’s son Ben, you know things are off to an excellent start. That duo could have stretched the Hag’s song to fill the entire eight-minute opening slot and we would have been content. Of course, things weren’t going to end there, as a medley featuring Underwood, Reba, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, Brad Paisley, Charlie Daniels and Alan Jackson quickly got underway. The all-star cast sang their own songs, like Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and classic covers like Underwood channeling Tammy Wynette on “Stand By Your Man.” The kicker: an appearance from Randy Travis, recovering from a 2013 stroke, there to add the “Amen” to his quintessential hit “Forever and Ever, Amen.” It was a difficult, but important, moment to watch.
No modern-day CMA Awards would be complete without Paisley and Underwood’s signature comedy bit, which pulled, predictably, from the election – a little ditty about their waning patience with the campaigns, a basket of deplorables joke (complete with an actual basket of “deplorable” things, like a “Coat of Many Colors” brassiere apparently in Dolly Parton’s cup size) and the awkward moment where Paisley jokingly called Underwood a “nasty woman.” Too soon, Brad, too soon.
As far as the actual awards go – yes, there were awards given out, among the myriad performances – Thomas Rhett took Single of the Year (“This is a dream come true,” he mused), while Song of the Year went to yet another underdog, Lori McKenna’s “Humble and Kind,” recorded by Tim McGraw. It was a triumph for the writer who penned it solo. “I have a job in this town because of this guy’s wife,” McKenna said about Faith Hill, who included several of the songwriter’s tracks on her 2005 LP Fireflies.
And about those upsets: one of the night’s most welcome surprises was Eric Church’s Album of the Year victory for Mr. Misunderstood, which many saw going to Dierks Bentley’s Black. “I’m not sure what was better, winning the award or Faith Hill fixing my tie,” he said to Hill, who presented his category and adjusted his bow tie. His performance of “Kill a Word,” alongside Rhiannon Giddens, only reinforced his worthiness – the song carries a cogent message in this tumultuous election season. Another major moment was Maryland duo Brothers Osborne snagging the Vocal Duo of the Year award from three-time winners Florida Georgia Line (here, Bros reigned over bros). Even Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild was excited, calling out TJ and John Osborne when she and her bandmates accepted Vocal Group of the Year.
Though she was favored to win, Morris’ rise to New Artist of the Year is still one of 2016’s biggest stories. Morris herself recalled the journey when she accepted her trophy, explaining how last year she was watching the CMAs from a bar across the street. Performing her single “My Church” minutes beforehand with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the McCrary sisters, she proved why she was deserving of one of the evening’s most coveted trophies.
The night was filled with other dynamic performances – Bentley and Elle King, Trisha Yearwood and Brooks, Little Big Town, McGraw and Miranda Lambert among them. One of the most anticipated was Beyoncé, who stunned with “Daddy Lessons” alongside the Dixie Chicks, and Stapleton, returning to the CMAs after his awards sweep last year to command the stage with a cover of “Seven Spanish Angels” with a little help from Dwight Yoakam.
A high note – to play on her own pun – was Dolly Parton being honored with the Willie Nelson Lifetime achievement award. Jennifer Nettles, Reba, Kacey Musgraves and Underwood all paid tribute to the legend in song, though it felt like a missed opportunity to have Beyoncé in the house and not tap her to sing “I Will Always Love You.” Bey would have scorched it.
Perhaps no moment was more indicative of a shifting CMA Awards climate than Chris Stapleton taking Make Vocalist of the Year – though he won numerous trophies for Traveller last year, it would have been easy to pass him over in favor of artists like Keith Urban, whose songs reached higher on the charts. In typical modest Stapleton fashion, he admitted to shedding some tears as all of the country legends graced the stage throughout the night. Even though the presidential election might be getting Americans all down, at least there is still some grace among the winners and losers of country music.