Much was being made ahead of last night’s Country Music Awards about it being the golden anniversary of the event, and the product of a two-year effort to honor country music’s history while retaining its normal focus on its contemporary variant. Then, just a few hours before the show’s start, it was announced that Beyoncé would appear—no doubt topping Justin Timberlake’s showing with Chris Stapleton last year.
But surprise of surprises, Beyoncé actually was a hight point, joining the Dixie Chicks on her own “Daddy’s Lessons” from current album Lemonade—which received some country airplay and was covered by the Chicks during their summer tour--and the Chicks’ “Long Time Gone.” The teaming worked fine because the Chicks are Beyoncé's equal in appearance and talent, and it made the return of the Chicks to the CMAs, after their banishment from country radio following Natalie Maines’ anti-Iraq War comments of 2002, all the more special.
But Beyoncé wasn’t the only super noncountry female star participant, as Rhiannon Gidden gave her top competition in supporting Album of the Year-winner Eric Church (for Mr. Misunderstood) in his performance of “Kill a Word.” Still, Beyoncé and Gidden were balanced by performacnes of lackluster songs by the true country female stars, most notably co-host and Female Vocalist of the Year honoree Carrie Underwood’s “Dirty Laundry” and Miranda Lambert’s bland new guitar-rock single “Vice.” The biggest star of all—period—was there, too, but Taylor Swift, in full pop glam, knowingly seemed out-of-place when she prefaced her presentation of the Entertainer of the Year award to Garth Brooks with “Hello, Nashville!” as if she were a stranger, which in 2016, 10 full years after her self-titled debut album, she kind of is.
Brooks, with wife Trisha Yearwood, pretty much certified his award in a straightforward segment—part of the running 50th anniversary show theme—in which together and solo they sang snippets of classic hits from the CMA Awards' early years, including “Jackson” (Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash), “Chug-a-Lug” (Roger Miller), “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” (Crystal Gayle), “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” (Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn), “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” (Lynn Anderson), “Don’t Close Your Eyes” (Keith Whitley) and “Golden Ring” (George Jones and Tammy Wynette). Less successful bits were New Artist of the Year winner Maren Morris, who was outperformed by her gospel backup The McCrary Sisters and instrumental accompanists the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on her “My Church,” and Kelsea Ballerini’s “Peter Pan,” with its flying ballet in the background that desperately needed a Captain Hook.
Tim McGraw’s rendition of Song of the Year “Humble and Kind” relied on the tired convention of incorporating elements from the song’s video, in this case, emotionally manipulative shots of a broad range of humanity. Chris Stapleton, winner of both Video of the Year (“Fire Away”) and Male Vocalist of the Year trophies, fared far better, with help from Dwight Yoakam, in a Willie Nelson/Ray Charles evocation via “Seven Spanish Angels.”
Speaking of Nelson, Lilly Tomlin’s presentation of the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achivement Award to her friend Dolly Parton was a high point, with Reba McEntire, Underwood, Kacey Musgraves, Martina McBride, Jennifer Nettles doing Parton proud on a series of her landmark hits. For her part Parton gave a fine speech, though wrongly truncated due to time constraints that should have been dealt with elsewhere. Class act Stapleton, who curiously received his Male Vocalist award from Sharon Stone, said he’d have given his time to Parton if she’d stuck around backstage.
Kenny Chesney gave a fine speech, too, upon receiving the third-ever (after Brooks and Swift) Pinnacle Award—also an indication that they’re running out of names for such add-on awards. Otherwise, the talk department was typically trite, what with co-host Brad Paisley’s Dolly Parton bra joke—stale since before he was born—and likewise predictable/questionable election humor, not to mention Underwood’s bathroom followup to Paisley’s Willie Nelson pot quip about needing to “take a Wikileak.” It’s doubtful, too, that Underwood saw the irony in chirping “This is country music’s biggest night ever!” in between silly shtick from Peyton Manning and five 2016 Olympics female gold medalists.
It being the 50th anniversary of the CMAs, it was great catching glimpses of long absent awards show attendees like Bill Anderson, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, Olivia Newton-John, Tanya Tucker, Pam Tillis, Gretchen Wilson, Janie Fricke an Barbara Mandrell. The long opening sequence, which began with Vince Gill’s tribute to Merle Haggard (also featuring Haggard’s son Ben) and also feted Buck Owens (with an assist from his Hee Haw co-host Roy Clark) and Tammy Wynette (Underwood excellent on “Stand By Your Man”), brought back the likes of McEntire, Yoakam, Charley Pride, Alabama, Charlie Daniels, Clint Black, Ricky Skaggs and Alan Jackson, with a stunning finale from Randy Travis, who sang the final “Amen” of “Forever and Ever, Amen,” after which Yoakam tenderly placed his hand on Travis’s shoulder.
Depending on how old you are, the show might have been over when it started, but Jackson’s and George Strait’s partnering later on “Remember When” and “Troubadour,” which was intercut with scenes from acceptance speeches by immortals Cash, Haggard, Wynette and George Jones, was very good, though it also served, unintentionally, to set them far apart from their country music descendents of today.