The CMT Music Awards rightfully earn its rep as the country VMAs. There’s a certain air of the unexpected, and the artists are in their comfort zone. See: Luke Bryan spontaneously caressing host Charles Esten’s leg when the Nashville star walked by him in the audience. Best of all, the performances feel particularly inspired, even if a few fell flat. Here are the 10 best and worst moments from this year’s big show.
Most awards shows try to open with some viral bang, but the CMTs opted for a reverent if bittersweet display of musicianship instead: Jason Aldean, Charles Kelley and Darius Rucker paid tribute to Gregg Allman, who died at the age of 69 late last month. Their no-frills performance of the 1970 Allman Brothers road anthem “Midnight Rider” featured each vocalist offering a different homage to Allman’s soulful Deep South rasp. Guitar wiz Derek Trucks – sometimes Allman Brothers player and the nephew of late Allmans drummer Butch Trucks – joined the trio, offering up a blistering solo worthy of Duane Allman. Together, the ensemble acknowledged the enormous debt that modern country owes Southern rock. B.M.
United Airlines forcibly removing and bloodying a screaming passenger from an overbooked flight definitely wasn’t funny when it happened back in April. And it remained unfunny (and staler than a cheese sandwich at Fyre Festival) to the point of cringe in the opening monologue, in which Nashville overcrowding caused by Stanley Cup madness forced officials to drag a belligerent, ticket-holding Big Kenny from the hall on Chip Esten’s order. “Watch the hat,” the host told “security.” Not only did Big Kenny – seemingly the only country star down to endure the indignity of this awkward bit – deliver his lines with zero comedic timing, the routine went on for an excruciating three minutes. And speaking of Big & Rich, why forcibly eject Big Kenny when John Rich is sitting right there? Yuge missed opportunity. A.G.
Lots of country artists explore rock star affectations, whether it’s by hiring backing musicians that could pull double-duty playing in a Pantera cover band or by sporting that polarizing signifier of a certain breed of rocker: the wallet chain. Brothers Osborne, though, need neither metal riffs nor outsized metal jewelry to assert their rock cred. Their outdoor performance of Pawn Shop single “It Ain’t My Fault” with Seventies guitar hero Peter Frampton was one of the show’s most rock & roll moments, and further establishes siblings T.J. and John as country-rock’s real deal, possessing the self-assured, give-no-fucks authenticity that their chain-clad counterparts just can’t seem to conjure. B.M.
In the early days of country awards shows, “dressed-up” meant rhinestones, glitter and glitz – and not just for the women. Men like Porter Wagoner brought out the Nudie Suits, costumed in eccentric, colorful ensembles emblazoned with cacti and horseshoes, shimmering the night away under the stage lights (love ya, Keith Urban, but that black no-sleeve hoodie is fine for the juice bar, but not the CMTs). Leave it to newcomers Midland to dress to the nines, thanks to the amazing needlework of Jenny Lewis and Nikki Lane’s go-to chain-stitch masters Ft. Lonesome. Onstage, the trio conjured up Wagoner and Gram Parsons while performing “Drinkin’ Problem” and doubling down on the twang. Way to make an entrance, boys. M.M.
The Nashville Predators’ win was the CMTs’ loss when the Stanley Cup finals schedule bumped the awards show from Bridgestone Arena to the Music City Center. But the switch to the smaller convention center didn’t keep Miranda Lambert – always a standout – from delivering an arena-sized romp through her slow-driving The Weight of These Wings banger “Pink Sunglasses.” That said, the on-the-nose (literally) pink sunglasses distributed to the crowd might have been cheesy enough to land this performance in the Worst column – but it was an awkward treat to see stars like Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Darius Rucker and Katherine Heigl squirm in those specs. A.G.
At this point, it feels like Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood have performed “The Fighter” together one million times. Clearly, the duo was a little sick of it too – so they stripped it back and slowed it down, removing the extra guitar shredding and hyper-speed disco beat for a minute and turning the song into a moving ballad. Here, Urban and Underwood’s musical communication is their best yet: face to face, the longing in the lyrics pop, and when things finally speed up again, it’s like the fighting sparks of a real romance. Not easy to pull off when Urban’s movie star wife, Nicole Kidman, is sitting nearby. M.M.
Thomas Rhett pivoted in a decidedly Eighties direction when he released “Craving You,” a slick, poppy new single that features Maren Morris on harmony vocals (though, let’s be real – she should have gotten her own verse). The song eschews country altogether, instead opting for “Style”-era Taylor Swift and Top 40 radio crossover appeal. But releasing a pop song doesn’t make one a pop star. Rhett’s CMTs performance of “Craving You” was low-energy and uninspired, with a stage set-up that recalled Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video but didn’t live up to that clip’s stylish iconography. And Morris’ absence onstage didn’t help much, proving that “Craving You” lives and dies as a duet. B.M.
In many ways, Lauren Alaina ran away with the whole damn show. She first won our hearts when accepting the trophy for Breakthrough Video of the Year for “The Road Less Traveled,” the title track of her early 2017 second album. Her visibly ecstatic shock upon hearing her name called only intensified when she took the stage to accept her award from Reba McEntire. “I’m not good at this. I don’t know what to do. Reba McEntire just gave me an award so that’s pretty crazy,” she said through tears. She’d have another triumphant moment with that same song later in the broadcast, performing a fiery, note-perfect rendition of the inspirational anthem. B.M.
It wouldn’t be an awards show these days without a marching band – but, fortunately, it was the capable Brett Eldredge who dusted off the ol’ drumline trope. Performing his latest single “Somethin’ I’m Good At,” Eldredge strutted around the stage like a true showman while the team of percussionists played along. Where some artists would render such a performance cliché, Eldredge’s left-of-center charm made for a playful few minutes that, while perhaps not totally fresh, stood out from the homogeneity of many of his peers. The performance further cemented the Illinois native’s status as something of a country anti-bro, an outlier who prefers Sinatra to Solo cups and isn’t afraid to march to the beat of his own drum. B.M.
Florida Georgia Line and the Chainsmokers. On paper it’s the worst joining of forces since the Suicide Squad reboot. In reality it was even worse. The two duos’ mimed performance of their collab “Last Day Alive” – pre-taped the previous night on the roof deck of FGL’s recently opened downtown Nashville bar (shameless plug much?) – was worse than mandatory sentencing laws for criminal trafficking across the actual Florida-Georgia state line (a federal offense). The snoozy anthem sounds like Backstreet Boys meets a Blink 182 ballad, and the performance – featuring fireworks – was bereft of any real sparks. The refrain of “It’s now or never” never felt less dire. A.G.