The real winners were announced last night at the 2013 CMT Music Awards, a fan-voted program that technically honors country-music videos. Still, here are a few more honors from the unremarkable telecast you should feel free to weigh in on:
Worst hosts: With dead eyes and a stiff posture, Jason Aldean left returnee Kristen Bell to once again try way too hard to elicit laughter from the crowd. Their ongoing gag about which duet to sing together (a thinly veiled attempt to get people to use the #CMTawards hashtag) was downright painful — and frequent teleprompter issues didn’t help. These two were no Brad and Carrie. They were no Blake and Reba, either. Heck, they were no Blake and Luke — and that’s saying something.
Best joke: The only marked improvement from last year’s ceremony came in the opening sketch — a weird spoof of a Sopranos-style therapy session that featured appearances by Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood, Kelsey Grammer, Lorainne Bracco, and Vince Vaughn, who was hawking his film The Internship. The skit was only mildly funny, but it featured a surprisingly smart barb directed at Luke Bryan.
At one point, Shelton looked down at his hand, which was covered with hosting tips scribbled in Sharpie (“Smile! Speak clearly!”). The brief moment was a cheeky nod to Bryan’s PR disaster last year, when he was caught reading the lyrics to the National Anthem off of his hand. (Credit to Yahoo!’s Wendy Geller for catching the moment.)
Best presenter/performer combo: The Avett Brothers and Kacey Musgraves. Both acts have true respect in Nashville, and their recent albums justify that. I just wish Musgraves’ latest single were something more dynamic than “Blowin’ Smoke.”
Worst presenters: All the CMT folk that got trotted out, including Dog the Bounty Hunter and Larry the Cable Guy, who delivered a painfully unfunny monologue about why Carrie Underwood needed to stop calling him. Look, I’m a southern guy and an unashamed fan of Jeff Foxworthy — I love a dumb joke every now and then — but does ANYONE find Larry the Cable Guy’s shtick even slightly funny anymore?
Best dressed: Though Kacey Musgraves and Kellie Pickler looked incredible, I’m giving the win to a dude this time. Lenny Kravitz wore a vest as a shirt, gold shoes, and a floor-length scarf, and remarkably, I didn’t even hate him for it.
Best performance: Little Big Town’s rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” was rollicking, and it was nice to see Jimi Westbrook get a chance to show off his vocal grit. They had the whole audience (T-Swift included) rocking out with them.
Worst performance: I’m a big fan of Darius Rucker’s sunny re-imagining of “Wagon Wheel” (I gave it an “A-” back in January), but the throaty singer’s harmonies with Lady Antebellum were way off for the majority of the song. They do get points for the sing-along at the end, though. It was a clear audience favorite.
Best off-the-cuff line: After Sheryl Crow sang a bit of “Islands in the Stream” with Kenny Rogers, a look of concern briefly flashed across his face. “I am going to catch so much hell from Dolly on that,” he said. You could hear the earnest fear in his voice.
Worst off-the-cuff line: Hunter Hayes’s performance of “I Want Crazy” was vocally better than some of his recent televised material, and he’s a pure performer and a natural showman. The problem is, he’s such a polished showman that some of his asides come off as a little bit too rehearsed. When he told the crowd, “I like those shades. They’re very, very nice. They say “Crazy” on them. I like that,” it felt smarmy instead of charming.
Best carry-over from The Voice: I’m not convinced that Nashville will embrace former-Hey-Monday-lead-singer-turned-Voice-winner Cassadee Pope as a country star, but her vocals were on point when she sang a snippet of her single “Wasting All These Tears” on the way to a commercial break. She, along with Ashley Monroe, made the best impression of the artists featured before commercials.
Worst carry-over from The Voice: The insistence on checking in with a social media correspondent (in this case, Pope) to read uninteresting tweets on-air. Like too much of the CMT Awards’ gimmicks, it was a waste of time.
Best audience member sing-along: Nicole Kidman mouthing all the words of husband Keith Urban’s breezy new track “Little Bit of Everything.” (Side note: the drum machine in that song kills the whole vibe.)
Worst audience member sing-along: Taylor, maybe trying a little too hard on “Cruise.”
Best redemption from bad harmonies: Lady Antebellum (which currently includes one very pregnant lady) totally sold their performance of “Goodbye Town.” Charles Kelley’s raspy belting sounded especially great.
Best redemption from bad hosting: Jason Aldean matched the actual fireworks during his performance of “Night Train,” which is an undeniably good song, with vocal fireworks. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard him sound as good as he did on those high “Niiiiiiiiiiiight” notes.
Best change of pace: Miranda Lambert’s crazed performance of this manic track (penned by Kacey Musgraves!) ruffled some feathers at the ACM Awards in April, despite being undeniably fun to watch. So it was nice to see her do a more straightforward rendition of “Mama’s Broken Heart,” for which she won Female Video of the Year. And she looked great, too!
Worst tribute: Did George Jones, whom Aldean called “the greatest country singer of all time” not deserve more of a tribute than 26 seconds on the way to a commercial? I’m sure a slew of artists would have stepped right up to honor the Possum, but the CMT Awards seems almost inherently averse to creating tender moments of sincerity that last for more than half a minute.
Best house band: The Mavericks brought some authentic country flavor to the proceedings.
Best/Worst prophetic sentence: “Two in a row. We’re gonna turn into Taylor Swift here in a minute,” said Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line after accepting their second trophy. Those words may be truer than he even realizes. With a pop crossover smash in “Cruise” and the power of Scott Borchetta behind them, Florida Georgia Line look like the next big thing in country music. While that reality would make a lot of Florida Georgia Line fans very happy, for those purists who prefer their country music without rap verses from Nelly, it could be a big problem.
Overall MVP: Carrie Underwood rightfully won the Video of the Year prize for her beautifully shot Wizard of Oz-inspired “Blown Away” clip, and she delivered the best vocal of the night on her ballad “See You Again,” which also served as a tribute to the victims of the Oklahoma tornadoes. (Underwood donated $1 million to the Red Cross’ relief efforts last week.)
But really, Carrie (and husband Mike Fisher) gets the MVP award for effortlessly conveying what every viewer was feeling during the lame ceremony: