The real winners were announced last night at the 46th Annual Country Music Association Awards. But here are a few more honors from the telecast you should feel free to weigh in on:
Best Hosts: There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe the effervescent duo of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood — they’re simply the best. If you were to look through the last five years of Oscar/Grammy/Tony/Emmy telecasts, you’d be hard pressed to find one joke that could compete with Paisleywood’s opening monologue. Their goofy (and increasingly saucy) hosting style always brings the laughs, and they keep the show moving briskly. On top of that, they both performed their own singles, delivered heartfelt tributes to Andy Griffith and Connie Smith, and demonstrated impressive “Gangnam Style” technique. Do better than that, Seth MacFarlane.
Best performance: I’m a sucker for the CMA Awards’ tribute performances (I still get a little teary thinking about last year’s Glen Campbell effort), and this year’s Willie Nelson-centered medley was no exception. Charles Kelly and Hillary Scott (of Lady Antebellum) sounded terrific on “Always on My Mind,” as did Blake Shelton and Keith Urban on “Whiskey River” and Faith Hill and Tim McGraw on “Good Hearted Woman.” The whole thing felt so warm that when Nelson himself took the stage and sang “The life I love is making music with my friends,” (from “On the Road Again”), you really believed it was happening in that moment. Watch below.
Best speech: This is a three-way tie between Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, and… Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton. While the tearful speech the married couple gave after winning Song of the Year was moving, I’m giving Lambert an individual win here for her Female Vocalist of the Year speech. That whole thing was an exercise in graciousness. Lambert complimented every other one of her competitors — “I’ve been listening to Red all week long. It’s freakin’ awesome, Taylor,” she said before naming Carrie Underwood (whom many felt deserved the title this year), Kelly Clarkson, and Martina McBride. It was all very sweet.
Worst Losing Facial Expression: While we’re on the subject of Underwood losing to Lambert in that category, we may as well talk about her wounded disposition when her name was not called. The Idol winner has struggled to pick up brass at awards shows lately, but last night, one really got the feeling than Underwood, who’s publicly proud of Blown Away, thought she might take home the Female Vocalist trophy. Alas, it was not meant to be. I’m not accusing Underwood of being a sore loser — you could just read all over her face that she truly wanted the validation.
And a side award for Best Audience Facial Expression: That belongs to Willie Nelson, for sure. Though the jovial strummer is usually high on life (or something like that), it was utterly moving to see him all solemn and teary-eyed as he took in his own tribute.
Best Shoutout to The Man Upstairs: Karen from Little Big Town’s tongue-in-cheek decision to add “…and Jesus” after the quartet named virtually every Nashville insider.
Worst Shoutout to The Man Upstairs: Faith Hill’s bizarre bellowing of “Goooooooood Bleeeeeessss Ameeeeerrrica” at the conclusion of her “American Heart” performance felt incredibly odd. Is that part of the song? If so, they should think about changing that for the live version.
Best Job Easing Into the Country World: Kelly Clarkson’s performance of her first country single “Don’t Rush” alongside Vince Gill was smoky, smooth, soulful, and understated. Plus, it never hurts getting name-dropped by Miranda Lambert.
Worst Job Easing Into the Country World: Nashville‘s Hayden Panettiere came across as forced and almost mocking during her banter with co-stars Connie Britton and Kimberly Williams-Paisley. Were we supposed to believe that Southern accent, or was it just part of the gag? Either way, it wasn’t especially charming. (But then, maybe that was the point, considering the bitchiness of her Nashville persona.)
Best Surprise Wins: The fact that both Eric Church and Little Big Town won major awards last night effectively proved that CMA Awards voters are willing to embrace rising acts, and not just Blake and Miranda (though, they did get their fair share). Church’s Chief was a totally deserving winner for Album of the Year, and seeing the endlessly hard-working Little Big Town finally take the Vocal Group of the Year prize (as well as Single of the Year for “Pontoon”) was delightful.
Best Dressed: Hey, Jana Kramer. Why you gotta / show up in that / sexy dress that I love? She looked incredible.
Worst Dressed: Jake Owen wore a tiny leopard print blazer to the show. Sometimes a punchline isn’t needed.
Worst Overall Styling: The Band Perry stepped up their performance game last night — stomping about the stage for a raucous version of their new single “Better Dig Two,” but what were they thinking with those outfits?! (I won’t even mention the hair. I’ve done it before.) Kimberly’s glittery circus/matador number looked frumpy and strange, and her brother’s satin shirt/blouse clashed with the cowboy hat (not to mention his brother’s wedding singer-y blazer). This group is so good, but they need a stylist so badly.
Worst Use of Grandma’s Bedazzled Doormat: Miranda Lambert has always loved wearing hideous performance outfits, but what was that?
Best Branding by Way of Dress: Taylor Swift, who has nary been seen out of a red dress since announcing her album title three months ago, donned one once again during her quiet performance of “Begin Again.”
Best Performer: Luke Bryan may be a cheeseball, but he owns it with his committed performance style. While singing “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” the baseball cap-wearer utilized the entire stage, swayed his hips like a Chippendale’s dancer (that’s kind of his thing), and delivered a confident vocal. It’s fun watching him enjoy himself so much. I bet you Bryan takes home Male Vocalist of the Year whenever he releases his next full-length disc — he’s ready to hop onto the country A-list.
Worst Performance Change from Last Year: Where did all these laser beams and HD screens come from? Obviously, the CMA Awards want to stay with the times, but I found the use of “hip” lighting schemes more distracting than endearing. The green lasers that surrounded the Band Perry were too much for a song audiences hadn’t heard, and the screens that contained Little Big Town on “Pontoon” were pretty cheesy, right? Those beach-ball graphics felt straight out of 2004. Let’s not turn this into The X Factor!
Best New Artist Showing: I was totally impressed with the Eli Young Band’s stage presence and harmonious delivery of “Even If It Breaks Your Heart.” They really involved the crowd. Good work, guys!
Best New Single: Kelly Clarkson, the Band Perry, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill all sang strong renditions of new singles at the show last night, but Brad Paisley’s tender-then-building version of his latest tune, “Southern Comfort Zone,” proved the most memorable. And not just because of his awesome guitar. Even with that ridiculous choir!
Worst New Single: Sorry, Keith Urban, but that drum-machine-driven Zac Brown-collab “Georgia Woods” didn’t work. Where was the hook?
Best Mashup: In one of the best performances of the night, Eric Church shifted from a straightforward rendition of his wide-open rocker “Springsteen” into a song by the Boss himself, “Born to Run.” It was a fun surprise (as well as a public “thanks” to Bruce Springsteen for the use of his name), and it revealed how well Church’s voice is suited to pounding arena anthems.
Honorable Mention for Best Mini-Mashup: Brad Paisley snuck a line from “Empire State of Mind” into the beginning of his performance of “Southern Comfort Zone.”
Best/Worst Puppy-Dog Eyes: Hunter Hayes had the audience (which he was sitting in the middle of) swooning with his sensitive take on his well-written ballad “Wanted.” This kid — the rightful Best New Artist winner — knows exactly what he’s doing and he is talented to boot, but he can seem a little too polished at times, right? When he clasps his hands and bows his head repeatedly after a performance, or when he guffaws so knowingly at a joke about an industry he’s still getting to know, it can come across like Ryan Seacrest 2.0
Best Pipes: Carrie Underwood may not have won Female Vocalist of the Year, but she certainly performed like one. (And EW readers named her most deserving in yesterday’s poll.) “Blown Away” is no easy vocal, but Underwood sang the windswept single with her gigantic belting voice (that last note!) and ample dramatic gusto. In terms of range-stretching, note-pummeling power, Underwood was second to none last night.
Worst Presenter: Tim Allen totally ruined any of the dramatic tension before the announcement of Entertainer of the Year. He just yelled, “Blake Shelton,” instantly!
Worst Potential Trend: I take nothing away from Blake Shelton or Miranda Lambert — I do like them (especially Lambert) — but I hope that their Ken-Barbie status isn’t what’s making them win so many awards. Shelton’s Entertainer of the Year win especially shocked me, as Red River Blue is merely an okay album and he hasn’t really toured this year due to his commitment to The Voice. I processed it as a reward given to Shelton for his representation of the country brand to the mainstream. (He seemed to take it the same way in his gracious, endearing speech.) While Shelton is certainly a charming guy (but please, enough with the constant drinking humor. We get it! You like drinking!), the award didn’t feel totally merited based on his music career — especially with Jason Aldean in the room. My suspicion is that Shelton’s status as one-half of the biggest power couple in country earned him some extra voter affection.
But let’s finish on an upbeat note! Overall, the CMA Awards were, once again, a totally enjoyable, well-produced evening of music and laughter. They remain the most prestigious of all the country awards shows, and a big reason why is their consistent quality year-in and year-out. Bravo to all involved.
What did you think of the show?
For more country music musing:
More CMA Awards coverage:
CMA Awards: See the winners here!
CMA Awards: Ken Tucker’s review
CMA Awards: Brad and Carrie’s best jokes
CMA Awards: Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert’s tearful speech
CMA Awards: Taylor Swift’s ‘Begin Again’ performance