Carrie Underwood, Reba, Kenny Chesney Display Mastery at 2015 CMT Music Awards

Musical Memories Made From Bridgestone Arena to Nashville's Lower Broadway

It was Carrie Underwood’s big night at the 2015 CMT Music Awards, although her wins in three categories perhaps weren’t as impressive as her musical performance toward the end of the show.

Making her first televised performance since she and her husband Mike Fisher welcomed the arrival of their first child, Isaiah Michael Fisher, in late February, Underwood delivered a powerful performance of “Little Toy Guns.” Looking gorgeous, of course, in a black dress, she never sounded better as she sang the lyrics like she had somehow had something to prove.

Underwood won female video and video of the year honors for “Something in the Water” and shared the collaborative video of the year win with Miranda Lambert with Carrie Underwood for “Somethin’ Bad.”

If anything, the performances at the awards show underscored the reasons certain acts have enjoyed many years of success as country artists.

A case in point was Reba’s performance of her current hit, “Going Out Like That.” With her expected combination of sass and authority, she can almost effortless make a big statement with whatever she sings. Hopefully, one of those statements Wednesday night was the reminder that certain female artists have had long careers and manage to remain viable while becoming true legends and, in Reba’s case, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Likewise, Kenny Chesney’s performance on the outdoor stage on Nashville’s Lower Broadway captured a master performer in his ideal element. After all, Chesney’s track record of performing stadium shows has made him a master of playing to massive crowds at outdoor venues. His confidence was obvious as he commanded the stage during a spirited performance of “American Kids.”

Compared to Reba and Chesney, Luke Bryan is still a relative newcomer, but he’s following in Chesney’s footsteps to become a hot ticket as a stadium headliner. While hardly an elder statesman, Bryan nonetheless provided a lesson in how to connect with a crowd during “Kick the Dust Up.” Like Chesney, he has the unique ability to make a huge venue seem almost intimate.

Some of the most memorable moments were straight ahead and simple.

Keith Urban has a well-deserved reputation as one of country music’s true guitar-slingers, yet he opted to play a Fender electric bass while he sang his just-released “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” the first single from his upcoming album. He offered the lead guitar duties to Danny Rader, who plays in Urban’s touring band.

And just when you think you’ve got Eric Church pegged as an arena act, he takes you by surprise with the stripped-down delivery of “Like a Wrecking Ball.” With nothing more than Church on guitar with backing from a drummer and organist, he managed to grab the crowd’s attention with a great song delivered with the sort of genuine soul that seems to be missing from a lot of today’s mainstream country music.

Lady Antebellum opened the show with producer-songwriter Zedd for a mashup of their “Long Stretch of Love” and his “Beautiful Now.”

Jason Aldean, who shared a CMT performance of the year win with rock icon Bob Seger for their collaboration on Seger’s “Turn the Page” from a CMT Crossroads concert, got fans in a romantic mood with “Tonight Looks Good on You.”

Jake Owen cavorted with carefully-choreographed dancers for the live arrangement of his new single, “Real Life,” and Sam Hunt, who won breakthrough video of the year honors for “Leave the Night On,” delivered “House Party.”

The outdoor stage on Lower Broadway was a good setting, too, for Darius Rucker’s performance of “Homegrown Honey” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Anything Goes.” Chesney, Rucker and FGL performing for free on the streets of downtown Nashville wasn’t just a good deal for fans arriving in town for this week’s CMA Music Festival, it’s the kind of thing that, well, makes Tennessee’s capital city Music City.

The Zac Brown Band provided a nice complement to the solo and duo acts with their live version of their hit, “Homegrown.” With A Thousand Horses performing a snippet of their No. 1 hit, “Smoke,” on the outdoor Nationwide Stage, it points to the fact that while female artists seem to be struggling to boost their careers to the next level, there aren’t a lot of real bands getting mainstream attention these days.

Others appearing on the Nationwide Stage were Chris Janson, Frankie Ballard, Kelsea Ballerini, Maddie & Tae and RaeLynn.

The awards show was hosted by Brittany Snow and Erin Andrews, who also played key roles in a pre-recorded comedy segment that found them looking for a ride to the awards show. But instead of Uber, the Nashville version was Guuber, and the drivers happened to be Arnold Swarzenegger, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and the host of the CBS series, The Late Late Show With James Corden. Before it was over, riders included Alan Jackson (singing with Tyler), Snow, Andrews and Tom Arnold (with transport by Swarzenegger) and Corder (driving Justin Bieber).

As interesting as it was to see them catch Hunter Hayes playing in a downtown honky-tonk, the capper was Rick Springfield busking on a Nashville street with a solo acoustic version of his 1981 hit, “Jessie’s Girl.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.