Neo-country Renaissance man Blake Shelton was the top honoree at last night’s 46th annual CMA Awards, taking home three trophies, including the top prize for Entertainer of the Year. “I love country music more than anyone in this room!” an apparently tipsy Shelton proclaimed while accepting the honor.
Other winners at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena included Eric Church, who took home Album of the Year for Chief, and Alabama quartet Little Big Town, who were crowned Vocal Group of the Year and won Single of the Year for their very Alabamian summer hit, “Pontoon.” Tender-footed, baby-faced Piano Boy Hunter Hayes took home New Artist of the Year, while Willie Nelson received the first Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. No surprise there.
Shelton’s wife, Miranda Lambert, didn’t do too badly herself. She won Female Vocalist of the Year, beating out Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood. Shelton and Lambert shared a Song of the Year win for their co-written single, “Over You” – a song Shelton said his father told him to write years ago, about the experience of losing his brother in a car wreck at age 14.
Broadcasting live on ABC, Underwood and co-host Brad Paisley made it clear that the CMAs have pretty much become the Grammys in an alternate, bedazzled-Westernwear dimension, kicking things off with a duet spoof of Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” – “Moves Like Haggard.” The comedic adaptation lovingly ribbed Justin Bieber’s and Lady Gaga’s onstage upchuck incidents and hell-raiser Randy Travis’ recent alcohol-fueled, Texas-sized shenanigans. A moment later, Paisley and Underwood were dancing “Gangnam Style” – a cruel reminder that pop culture has only come so far since “Achy Breaky Heart.”
The broadcast focused more on live music than acceptance speeches, with performances outnumbering award presentations two to one. Taylor Swift, of course, had the most anticipated performance of the night. Decked out in red, the current chart-topper debuted her new single “Begin Again,” singing on a set designed like an outdoor Paris café, complete with falling leaves and a fake Eiffel Tower.
The Band Perry also trotted out a new single, “Better Dig Two.” The stadium-sized murder ballad sounds like Kentucky Fried Def Leppard, and the band’s performance was a bizarre conflation of fiddles, banjos, hard-chugging power chords, smoke and lasers. Suffice to say, the Hank Williams influence got a little lost in the mix.
Production-wise, Little Big Town had the night’s most elaborate showing, with the band members playing “Pontoon” while sequestered in the middle of a giant, Hollywood Squares-like video wall flashing nautical-themed animation. For such a breezy pop ditty, the refrain – mmmmmmmmmm motorboatin‘ – makes it all the more easy to hate.
And then there was Eric Church, at center mic, sporting his trademark trucker-hat-and-aviators combo and singing his smash hit “Springsteen.” Unlike Bruce, on stage Church performs with all the emotional gusto of a drowsy stormtrooper. The difference was all the more apparent when Church, in his deadpan drawl, shoehorned in a couple verses of Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” It’s a dayeth turrap, he sang. Alternate dimension? Definitely.
Highlights included Miranda Lambert performing her up-tempo rocker “Fastest Girl in Town” (which sounded like an airbrushed version of Kings of Leon’s “Molly’s Chambers”) and Faith Hill’s “American Heart,” a yearning, full-bodied patriotic anthem that hits all the marks of an archetypal modern country lighter-cuer.
Lowlights included Carrie Underwood’s pitchy performance of her overwrought, domestic-violence themed “Blown Away,” and all the performances from the frat-bar-bro singers who don’t even look like the kind of people who listen to music.
While many of the show’s most hysterical moments – like Dierks Bentley’s performance of his woozy, Collective Soul-in-cowboy-boots “Tip It On Back” – weren’t intentional, a mid-show skit in which Paisley and Underwood commissioned Dr. Little Jimmy Dickens to induce ready-to-pop Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles into labor was kind of creepy, and definitely hilarious.
As a finale, Shelton, Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill honored Nelson with a star-studded medley. Perhaps perplexed by “Moves Like Haggard,” the man of the moment looked a little uncomfortable as he watched Lady Antebellum cover “Always On My Mind” and “Crazy.” Shelton and Urban’s take on “Whiskey River” was better. And Nelson joining in and shutting it down with a festive “On the Road Again” was – again, no surprise here – great.