The real winners were announced last night at the 45th Annual Country Music Association Awards. But here are a few more honors from the telecast that you should feel free to weigh in on:
Best Hosts: Obviously, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley are the only people eligible for this honor, but haven’t they become quite a dynamic duo? I can’t think of any pair I’d rather see overseeing an awards show. They’re funny and saucy without being mean, and they keep the show moving.
Between the Hank Williams Jr. parody and the Faith Hill/Tim McGraw anatomy check that opened the show, Underwood and Paisley had me literally tearing up with laughter. And just when you think they can’t endear you to themselves any more, they deliver a powerhouse vocal on “Remind Me.” Hey, Oscars, are you watching?
Best performance: Near the end of the show, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, and Vince Gill performed a touching medley of tunes in honor of country icon Glen Campbell, who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The seasoned veteran, clearly moved by the kind gesture, watched proudly from his seat, even giving the trio a thumbs-up when Paisley began to sing “Galveston.” It was the night’s sweetest moment:
Best Collaboration: The Zac Brown Band paid tribute to their home state of Georgia by singing “Georgia on my Mind” with Greg Allman. The song felt warm and rich, like it was being played outside on a balmy summer night in Athens, where a local tenor-sax player might stop on his way home from the jazz club and join in. (The swampy background helped!) Allman and Brown’s harmonies were assured and soulful.
Worst Collaboration: Lionel Richie’s “country” performance started off gloriously with Little Big Town joining him onstage for “Deep River Woman,” (Honestly, that quartet can make anything sound great, right?) and it remained heartfelt and pretty during Darius Rucker’s “Stuck on You” section, but the overly long set took a turn for the worse when Rascal Flatts arrived to sing “Dancing on the Ceiling.” The pop song felt like it had been ripped straight out of an overly-produced episode of X Factor, and although Gary LeVox can certainly sing, he looked utterly bored while performing with Mr. Richie. Not even Blake Shelton’s charming head-bopping sing-along from the audience could get me on board.
And a side award for Best Audience Facial Expression: Sara Evans’ slight smile and dewey eyes while watching Richie; it was the look of a deeply satisfied onlooker.
Worst Audience Facial Expression? That young man in the light blue shirt who was standing behind many of the performers on the second stage seemed weirdly well-lit all night, and my oh my, was he a serious clapper! I got totally distracted by him — check him out over Eric Church’s left shoulder:
Worst Facial Expressions While Singing: Mr. LeVox ain’t off the hook just yet! I was even more distracted by the Rascal Flatts lead singer’s sourpuss face during the Natasha Bedingfield collaboration “Easy.” Bedingfield was nailing her belting and selling the song emotionally, and while LeVox was hitting some very fast, very high runs, he looked like he was having an Activia moment throughout. It’s the CMAs, man! Can’t you bring some life to your performance?
Best Facial Expressions While Singing: Perhaps he should take a lesson from Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, whose joyous, fiercely engaged stare into Matt Nathanson’s eyes during “Run” fully communicated the meaning of the song without any help from the lyrics. Thankfully, both Nettles and Nathanson can sing their tushies off, too, and by the end of the song, they were soaring. The performance brought me back to the first time I heard Sugarland’s live “Come on Get Higher” cover. If you’ve never heard it, start Googling now.
Best Seasoned-Diva Ballad: Martina McBride’s “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” proved once again why she can still book these high-profile performances, despite the fact that she hasn’t had much of a singles-chart presence in the last few years. The pantsuited brunette planted her feet and tore through the gigantic notes of the ballad, all while bathed in a stunning blue-white cell-phone glow from the audience. That effect was surprisingly beautiful.
Worst Seasoned-Diva Ballad: Sara Evans’ “Stronger” felt decidedly weaker — Spanish web dancers couldn’t distract from Evans’ shaky vocals on a downer song that has worn out its welcome. I wish Evans could return to making upbeat songs like “Born to Fly” and “Suds in the Bucket,” but if the CMA Awards were any indication, veteran female artists simply MUST sing ballads.
Best Reaction to Applause: Taylor Swift threw off audiences by making a confused face and mouthing the word, “What?” at the end of her CMA performance last year, an action that many found slightly disingenuous. Yes, Taylor, believe it — they are clapping for YOU because, you know, you’re the biggest star in the country-music industry and you have been for several years now. So it was nice to see the singer not feign surprise when the crowd gave her a standing ovation for her lovely, simple rendition of “Ours,” which I believe was set in an Anthropologie window. Swift looked gratified, warm, and appreciative of the recognition.
Worst Use of an Old Snuggie: Natasha Bedingfield, seriously, WHAT the heck was that dress?
Worst Use of an Old WWE Championship Belt: Miranda Lambert almost got swallowed by her giant belt/shirt/diamond encrusted breastplate while singing “Baggage Claim.” Flaming pillars shot out of the stage as the fiery singer spat out a verse about burning a cheating lover’s luggage, but the effectively sassy performance was nearly overwhelmed by the distracting silver monstrosity taking over Lambert’s torso.
Best Unintentional Britney Spears Tribute: Raise your hand (or your drink, Eric Church) if you were just a little bit confused by Luke Bryan during his performance of “Country Girl, Shake it for Me.” It just seemed a little bit incongruous to be singing about “the young bucks sittin’ in the honky-tonks” and “the rednecks rockin’ ’til the break of dawn” whiles wearing a pair of skin-tight, glittery jeans and shimmying across the stage and on top of metal chairs with done-up female dancers. (Plus, it was strangely reminiscent of Britney Spear’s “Stronger” video.) That’s not to say the performance wasn’t enjoyable — it absolutely was. Bryan rocked out in his backwards cap, and he sounded strong despite running all over the stage. Clearly, the man knows how to put on a show, and the pyro-assisted clip made for thrilling entertainment. The crowd went wild.
Worst Vocal Tic: I have no doubt that Kimberly Perry is a good singer. For the most part, The Band Perry’s lead vocalist exercised a confident lilt during “All Your Life,” (Thank you, CMAs, for sparing us another year of “If I Die Young!”) but she has a nasty habit of inserting a “h” before her open syllables. All I could hear during the chorus was, “Li-ha-ha-hife, Li-ha-ha-hife,” which became a major distraction, and took away from the otherwise nifty Southern-gothic-traveling-circus vibe of the performance.
Best/Worst/Undecided: Faith Hill’s finale performance of her new single, One Republic cover “Come Home,” left me strangely cold, but clearly, the crowd was happy to have their sweetheart back. Though Hill has an undeniably strong voice, she bobbled her way though a few high notes during the chorus (maybe these minor vocal flaws were magnified by the fact that I ‘d never heard the song before?). And I’m not sure that I even like the track all that much, though the commanding “Come home” refrain is a memorable melody. I just don’t know. Commenters, I’m leaving this one to you.
What did you think of the CMA performances?
Follow Grady on Twitter: @EWGradySmith