CMA Awards Blend Classic, Contemporary Country

Luke Bryan, Kacey Musgraves, Carrie Underwood Among Highlights

From Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton cranking up their latest hits to Kacey Musgraves, The Band Perry and others saluting country legends, the performances at the 2014 CMA Awards kept fans on their toes.

Luke Bryan didn’t turn around to shake his tush on his latest hit, “Roller Coaster.” Instead, he focused on the song’s impassioned lyrics, with his eyes closed for much of the performance. Although the backdrop was literally a twisted roller coaster, the song came across with sincerity. Like many of his fellow performers, he received a standing ovation. But that was nothing compared to his first-ever CMA award — in the entertainer of the year category.

Multiple winner Miranda Lambert teamed up with Little Big Town for “Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” a smoldering anthem of regret and bad decisions. Both parties had already collected CMA trophies — Little Big Town for vocal group and Lambert for album (Automatic), single (“Automatic” ) and vocal event (“We Were Us” ). By night’s end, she picked up her fifth female vocalist award.

With an understated backdrop, Shelton unveiled his newest single, “Lonely Tonight,” with duet partner Ashley Monroe. She is a member of the Pistol Annies and also served as one of Lambert’s bridesmaids when she married Shelton. He went on to win his fifth consecutive male vocalist trophy and dedicated it to his hero, Earl Thomas Conley.

Country traditionalists couldn’t miss the signature Grand Ole Opry barn backdrop during Musgraves’ reverent performance of “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” But the real payoff was seeing Opry legend Loretta Lynn herself — a rare and unexpected appearance from the iconic 1972 CMA entertainer of the year. Musgraves, who had just won a song trophy for “Follow Your Arrow,” was positively beaming, while Martina McBride could be seen in the audience wiping away tears.

Dierks Bentley seemed a little bit nervous as his live performance of “Drunk on a Plane” was getting off the ground, but by the time he got to the chorus, he was in the zone. With arrival and departure screens flickering behind him, Bentley put some swagger into his set. After the fans started screaming their approval, he cracked a smile. Hey, no (cabin) pressure — he’d already won the CMA music video award for “Drunk on a Plane” earlier in the day.

George Strait and Eric Church stood side by side for “Cowboys Like Us,” as likenesses of Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson and more pioneers appeared behind them. Strait retired from touring this year but not before playing a sold-out show at AT&T Stadium in Dallas in June.

Not surprisingly, Underwood made it look easy during her performance of “Something in the Water.” Enlisting a gospel choir and shimmering waterfall imagery, the pregnant powerhouse vocalist shared her inner strength with the audience. With a decade in the spotlight, she seems more comfortable than ever in front of the camera.

Considering it’s his seventh year co-hosting the awards show, Brad Paisley is a natural by now on the CMA stage. That confidence was evident during his live rendition of “Perfect Storm.” Although he was surrounded by fans clustered around the stage, it was easy to imagine him singing it directly to his lovely wife, Kimberly, who was enjoying the show from the audience.

Vince Gill, the recipient of the CMA’s Irving Waugh Award of Excellence, received a heartfelt video salute from his admirers — Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell and James Taylor among them. Gill admitted he misses hosting the show after 12 years of being the master of ceremonies, then praised the current generation of artists for their obvious camaraderie and friendship.

Near the middle of the show, Tim McGraw strummed along as an eight-piece band supported him on his latest single, “Shotgun Rider,” but then he slid the instrument behind his back to finish out the appealing number. Meanwhile, Jason Aldean‘s “Burnin’ It Down” is a steamy single that is more sexual than flirtatious, so his performance focused on his simmering stage presence. Rather than running around the stage, as you might see on his arena tours, he elected to play it cool close to the mic.

Meanwhile, Keith Urban relied on his winning formula of natural charisma, dynamic singing and impressive guitar wailing on “Somewhere in My Car.” From the audience, his wife Nicole Kidman was glowing almost as brightly as the white beams of light onstage. After that, The Band Perry delivered an appreciative rendition of Glen Campbell‘s classic hit “Gentle on My Mind” in honor of the country music legend who won the CMA entertainer and male vocalist awards in 1968. Written by John Hartford, the delightful song is The Band Perry’s latest single.

Early in the night, Lady Antebellum kept the energy mounting all through “Bartender” as flashing lights pulsated throughout the arena. And it didn’t take long for Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood to stand at the lip of the stage, easily within reach of eager fans. Immediately following, Florida Georgia Line showed their sensitive side with “Dirt” as images of churches and telephone poles glimmered in the background. Later in the show, they graciously (and nervously) picked up the vocal duo trophy.

Kenny Chesney‘s peppy opening number, “American Kids,” popped with more color than any performance of the night. Speaking of pop, the CMA Awards have welcomed numerous pop stars over the years and that open-door policy was kept firmly in place. For example, Ariana Grande packed heat with Little Big Town , while Lambert shook her bass with Meghan Trainor .

Just before the night wrapped up, the Doobie Brothers hit the joint with “Listen to the Music” featuring jumpin’ Jennifer Nettles and Lady A’s Hillary Scott on guest vocals and Hunter Hayes keyed into the electric guitar. (The classic rock band issued a new album of country duets, Southbound, this week.) The evening concluded with their fitting tune, “Takin’ It to the Streets.”

Check out complete coverage of the 48th annual CMA Awards.
Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.