Dolly Parton didn’t want to mess up her eyelashes, she said.
But she cried anyway.
During one of the last performances of the 50th Annual CMA Awards on Wednesday night (Nov. 2), Parton shed a few Dolly-sized tears as Jennifer Nettles, Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves, Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride took the stage to serenade her with a medley of her hits.
Nettles started the compilation with Texas a cappella group Pentatonix, singing “Jolene.” Then Reba took over for “9 to 5” and Musgraves for “Here You Come Again.” Underwood and McBride traded vocals on Parton’s 1974 “I Will Always Love You.”
The Parton tribute celebrated the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award winner and wrapped the night of medleys with some of the best music from the 1970s and 1980s.
Another one of the night’s medleys that fully embraced the heritage of the music came from entertainer of the year winner Garth Brooks and his wife Trisha Yearwood. Between them, they have enough country hits to fill their own prime time special, but on this 50th anniversary special, they chose to sing the songs that inspired them.
Theirs was a seven-song collection that included Johnny Cash and June Carter’s “Jackson,” Roger Miller’s “Chug-a-Lug,” Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” (which made Gayle smile from her seat next to her sister Loretta Lynn), Lynn and Conway Twitty’s “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden” and Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes.”
It ended with “Golden Ring,” the 1976 duet from George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and by the end of the song, Brooks and Yearwood were holding hands like a proper country couple.
There were several other significant collaborations throughout the night.
Jason Aldean and Brooks & Dunn made for a solid trio on “Brand New Man,” trading vocals on the title track off Brooks & Dunn’s 1991 debut album.
Maren Morris, who won the new artist award, performed her debut single and anthem to her car radio, “My Church.” She was backed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Christian gospel music sister quartet, the McCrary Sisters.
Alan Jackson and George Strait did a two-song mash-up of sorts — “Remember When” and “Troubadour” — as a tribute to the legends of country music who have passed away.
Chris Stapleton and Dwight Yoakam joined forces for what Underwood called “the enduring genius of Ray Charles and Willie Nelson.” They sang the duet from 1984, “Seven Spanish Angels.”
Tim McGraw performed the CMA’s song of the year, “Humble and Kind,” styling it in the way the ballad deserved. He tackled the song alone for the first half, then was joined by the students of Ben Ellis, the late Latin teacher from Brentwood, Tennessee’s Christ Presbyterian Academy. They held candles as McGraw finished the song on bended knee.
Keith Urban started his “Blue Ain’t Your Color” with just a guitar and a tight four-piece band. But about mid-song, 10 violinists joined in to give the song the vibe of an almost classical country waltz.
And when it was Underwood’s turn to sing her current single “Dirty Laundry,” co-host Paisley introduced her with, “She’s as good as it gets.”
With the pairing of Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks on “Daddy Lessons” grabbing plenty of attention, other performances throughout the three and a half hour show included the single of the year from Thomas Rhett, “Die a Happy Man,” plus Kelsea Ballerini’s “Peter Pan,” Little Big Town’s “Better Man,” Dierks Bentley’s “Different for Girls,” Miranda Lambert’s “Vice,” Luke Bryan’s “Move,” Florida Georgia Line’s “May We All” (with McGraw), Eric Church’s “Kill a Word” (with Rhiannon Giddens) and Brad Paisley’s “Today.”