CMA Awards: The Performances

Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake Steal the Show

Not only did Chris Stapleton win three awards at the 49th annual CMA Awards, he and Justin Timberlake stunned the crowd with one of the most memorable performances in the show’s history. You could see it in the faces of those who witnessed it at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.

Most artists will tell you that playing an industry-related event can be one of the most challenging gigs imaginable. Although Wednesday night’s (Nov. 4) CMA event was a ticketed one open to the public, most of the prime seats were occupied by artists and music industry executives who have pretty much seen everything before.

And let’s face it: Because the musical portions of awards shows can become extremely predictable, when something extraordinary happens, it gets your attention. Such was the case with Stapleton (one of the industry’s most beloved and respected songwriters) and Timberlake (who recently purchased a large parcel of land just south of Nashville).

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04:  Musician Justin Timberlake (L) performs onstage with Singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton (R)performs onstage at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic) Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic

At first glance, it seemed like an unlikely pairing, but Stapleton is a soulfully-gifted vocalist and guitarist. And regardless of what you think about Timberlake or pop music in general, the guy is an amazing singer and a skilled showman. Putting them together – Stapleton’s idea apparently – turned out to be a stroke of genius.

Aside from the obvious musical talent, they were savvy enough to select two songs that worked well together – “Tennessee Whiskey” from Stapleton’s Traveller, which won the CMA’s album of the year, and Timberlake’s “Drink You Away.” Stapleton extensively reworked “Tennessee Whiskey,” George Jones’ 1983 hit written by Dean Dillon and the late Linda Hargrove.

Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton perform onstage at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. Terry Wyatt/WireImage

Backed by a horn section and Stapleton and Timberlake swapping lines on both songs, it wasn’t a traditional country performance, by any means. But bigger than that, the performance showed the sort of genuine emotion that was a welcome break from artists rehashing their latest single or trying to introduce new material to a TV audience. It also proved the connection between country music and rhythm & blues.

The best part of their performance, though, was looking at the crowd’s reaction. There was Keith Urban grinning ear to ear while taking photos on his cell phone. The members of Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum were standing and swaying to the music. Their responses were real and not a polite reaction for the TV cameras.

Was the performance and Stapleton’s other wins as new artist and male vocalist of the year an indication that hat country music is about to take a drastic change of direction to more substantive music? Maybe not, although it was one of several reality checks that came during the CMA show.

Another was the segment featuring Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn, who have been doing shows together this year in Las Vegas. Like Stapleton and Timberlake, they brought a level of artistic authority on Reba’s “Why Haven’t I Heard From You” and Brooks & Dunn’s “Play Something Country.” Those really aren’t even the best songs from their respective catalogs, but both acts once again proved that they’re the real deal.

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04: (L-R) Kix Brooks, Reba McEntire and Ronnie Dunn perform onstage at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic) Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic

Hank Williams Jr. and Eric Church started the music on a solid note by opening the show with “Are You Ready for the Country,” a Neil Young composition that Waylon Jennings turned into a Top 10 country hit in 1976.

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04: Hank Williams, Jr. and Eric Church perform onstage at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic) Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic

Collaborations were a recurring theme, with Urban and John Mellencamp performing “Little Pink Houses” before Urban took a solo turn on his single, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” And Thomas Rhett and Fall Out Boy teamed up for Rhett’s “Crash and Burn” and the band’s “Uma Thurman.”

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04: Musicians Keith Urban (L) and John Mellencamp perform onstage at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic) Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04:  Thomas Rhett performs with Fall Out Boy onstage at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic) Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic

A moment of artistic validation came with Little Big Town’s performance of “Girl Crush,” which won single and song of the year honors. Written by Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey, the song was the subject of controversy after some listeners called for radio stations to stop playing the track because they interpreted it as somehow promoting lesbianism.

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04:  (L-R) Jimi Westbrook, Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, and Phillip Sweet of Little Big Town perform onstage at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Terry Wyatt/WireImage) Terry Wyatt/WireImage

Had the listeners paid closer attention to the lyrics, they would have actually understood that this wasn’t the case at all. But with the support of other country artists, “Girl Crush” became a major hit – and an award-winning song.

Church has been full of surprises this week, and the CMA Awards show was no exception. After sending fans a copy of an unannounced new album on Tuesday, he performed the title track, “Mr. Misunderstood,” at the arena.

Other performances included the Zac Brown Band’s “Beautiful Drug,” Kenny Chesney’s “Save It for a Rainy Day,” Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time,” Carrie Underwood’s “Smoke Break,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Confession,” Brad Paisley’s “Country Nation,” Blake Shelton’s “Gonna,” Luke Bryan’s “Strip It Down,” Miranda Lambert’s “Bathroom Sink,” Jason Aldean’s “Gonna Know We Were Here,” Kacey Musgraves“Dime Store Cowgirl” and Dierks Bentley’s “Riser.”

More coverage of the 49th annual CMA Awards.

View photos of the 49th annual CMA Awards red carpet.

View photos of the 49th annual CMA Awards show.

View photos of the 49th annual CMA Awards press room.

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