CMA Awards Show Was a Showcase of Styles

What Made It Country? A Little Bit of Everything

What makes you country? That’s easy — snagging a performance spot on the CMA Awards show. The 2018 edition was a splendid example of how just about any style fits musically under the country rubric. And it was all pretty damn good.

The show-stoppers ranged from Ricky Skaggs’ high-velocity bluegrass set that melded “Black Eyed Susie,” “Highway 40 Blues” and “Country Boy” into a sonic freight train to Thomas Rhett’s Broadway tinged production of “Life Changes” to the mighty Garth Brooks’ simple and soul-baring “Stronger Than Me.”

Besides an array of estimable side men, Skaggs tapped into the elastic talents of Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Marty Stuart and bluegrass diva Sierra Hull. It was a joy ride.
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Show opener Luke Bryan rattled some rafters, too, with vocal assists from Luke Combs, Cole Swindell, Lindsay Ell, Jon Pardi, Chris Janson, and Ashley McBryde. Their catalog of enumerated country attributes sparked flashbacks of “Red Neck Woman.”

Co-hosts Paisley and Carrie Underwood tried valiantly for humor in their “A Star Is Bored” riff, but their labored schtick was redeemed only by the intervention of young Mason “Lil Hank” Ramsey.

Kelsea Ballerini fairly pulsated with attitude in “Miss Me More.” The dancers were a nice touch, and one could imagine hearing somewhere in the background Helen Reddy humming “I Am Woman.”

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John Shearer/Getty Images for the Country Music Association

Underwood had spectacular graphics for her “Love Wins,” but her powerful voice rendered them superfluous. Like Martina McBride did in her prime, Underwood tends to make every lyric a proclamation, whether it merits the drama or not.

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It was disappointing that Lauren Alaina was limited to singing only the intro to Dottie West’s finger-wagging “A Lesson In Leavin’.” But a little Dottie is loads better than no Dottie at all.

Dan + Shay thrilled the crowd—as well as fans of vocal magic—in their smooth swing through their massive hit, “Tequila.”

With Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert’s “Drowns the Whiskey” one was whisked back to the days of traditional (i. e., hard-drinking) country, even though the two seemed somewhat distant even as they harmonized.

Wearing a washboard like a shield, Lambert sparkled with her fellow Pistol Annies in “Got My Named Changed Back.” Their twangish singing and screw-you attitude was reminiscent of some of the tunes Irving Berlin wrote for his prickly heroine in Annie Get Your Gun.

John Shearer/Getty Images for the Country Music Association

Midland scored a solid hit with their re-treading of Jerry Reed’s irrepressible “East Bound and Down.” And it served as a high-spirited farewell to the inimitable Burt Reynolds.

You maybe wanted gospel? Well, you got it in both sound and sentiment when Chris Stapleton, Maren Morris and Mavis Staples — aided by a chorus — rang out with “Friendship” and “I’ll Take You There.”

And if you wanted bongo drums to remind you of what real rhythm sounds like, you got them in Eric Church’s try-it-all “Desperate Man.” Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha were pure pop in “Meant to Be,” pumping energy into lyrics of bumper-sticker profundity.

Keith Urban was sinuously strident in his hard-driving “Never Comin’ Down.” As common with Urban, the whole production packed a punch. And a round of cheers please for Luke Combs” “She Got the Best of Me,” Dierks Bentley and the Brothers Osborne’s “Burning Man,” Paisley’s image-rich “Bucked Off” (with its wistful fiddle drone from George Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning”), Kacey Musgraves’ aptly titled “Slow Burn,” Old Dominion’s “Hotel Key” and Brett Young’s “Mercy.”

They all made it country.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.