Wednesday night, history was made right before our eyes on live television. A fandom that had been denied happiness for years suddenly had a chance to celebrate. For a brief, fleeting moment, all was right with the world.
I’m talking, of course, about country music fans.
Last night’s 50th Annual Country Music Awards featured a Who’s Who of legendary talent as the awards ceremony paid tribute to the living legends of the genre, including Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Roy Acuff and more.
The awards seemed to skew toward the traditional side, as well. Garth Brooks took home his first Entertainer of the year trophy since 1998. Florida Georgia Line finally lost the Best Vocal Duo of the Year Award. And Luke Bryan was shut out after being nominated in two categories. I went .500 in my picks for this year, although plenty of my dark horse picks won. Check out how I did here.
And let’s not forget the performances. The first eight minutes of the ceremony, while not the “best eight minutes in country history” as ABC promised, featured everyone from Charley Pride to Randy Travis onstage.
Read on to see the best and worst moments from the night.
Best Surprise Performance — Beyoncé and The Dixie Chicks
Clearly a ratings ploy that both enraged and delighted fans (more on that here), the most “country” aspect of the night came from a pop star and three formerly disgraced queens of the genre. “Daddy Lessons” sounds more country than a lot of what’s out there on the radio right now, and the Chicks worked in a jab at the establishment with a snippet from “Long Time Gone”: “Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard, they’ve got money but they don’t have Cash, they got Junior but they don’t have Hank.”
It was a masterful performance that finally gave some life to the proceedings near the end of the ceremony, which had been awash in some slow performances. They even recorded a studio version of their performance.
Best Performance — Eric Church and Rhiannon Giddens, “Kill a Word”
I’ve raved about “Kill a Word” before, and how it is the antidote for the hate-spewing times we live in. The best part of this performance of Church’s latest single, though, was Rhiannon Giddens, who does backup vocals on the studio version and has been touring with Church in support of his “Mr. Misunderstood” album. (That album also won “Album of the Year, by the way.) The night was full of female tributes and performances, from Carrie Underwood’s all-female band to the tribute to Dolly Parton, but this understated performance put the spotlight on one of music’s greatest vocalists.
Worst Performance — Brooks & Dunn and Jason Aldean, “Brand New Man”
I’m assuming this was an attempt to fix Jason Aldean’s image after he went and made an album about being all blue collar and then basically defended bro-country. If that’s what it was, he messed up the melody of this B&D hit right away and never recovered.
Biggest Upset — Brothers Osborne wins Vocal Duo of the Year
Nobody really saw this coming. The smart money was on Florida Georgia Line, who would have won for the fourth year in a row. Plus, they had a new album out, “Dig Your Roots,” that promised to position them in a more country-sounding arena than they had previously occupied.
The fact that they lost this year means their relevance is slipping and other duos can rise up to take their place. I would have liked to have seen Joey +Rory win, but Brothers Osborne had a great year. Well deserved award.
Best Tribute — Everything to do with Dolly Parton
It started when Lily Tomlin, Parton’s “9 to 5” costar, came on stage to present Parton with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. Then, a chorus line made up of Kacey Musgraves, Carrie Underwood, Reba, Martina McEntire, Jennifer Nettles and Pentatonix took the stage to perform a string of Parton hits. Reba was so overcome with emotion, she forgot the words and then told the audience as much.
The whole moment was heartfelt and genuine, and an actual tribute to a living legend in a night filled with mandatory “check the box” shutouts to country music legends.
Biggest “Of course they won that” Award — Chris Stapleton wins Best Male Vocalist
Stapleton repeated in the category this year, but there was really no contest. His acceptance speech was humble and kind, and his performance of Willie Nelson and Ray Charles hits with Dwight Yoakam was another highlight of the night.
Biggest Snub — Stapletons lose Musical Event of the Year
It’s beyond me why “Different For Girls,” a song that approaches breakups in a “Hey, didja know men and women might have different emotions, but also are casually sexist” kind of way, won in this category. I didn’t expect the Stapletons to win for “You are My Sunshine,” but I thought it would go to “Think of You.” “Different For Girls” sounds nice, but it doesn’t sound like a song written from this era.
All in all, the CMAs tried to recruit a new audience while also trying to lure back older viewers, with mixed results. Some of the tributes were genuine, but most were lip service. Beyoncé added more star power to the night, but would she have even been there if the World Series hadn’t happened the same night?
More traditional artists won that would have been expected, and Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood were fine hosts, as always. But as the country music on the radio continues to alienate older listeners, the CMAs are trying harder every year to stay relevant. This year has already seen a resurgence in traditional country. Whoever the CMAs nominate next year will prove if the genre is serious about honoring its legends.
Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.
Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.