CMA Awards 2010 live: All the performances as they happen

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What follows will be instant grades of every performance at tonight’s Country Music Assn. Awards. This post is written off-site from the CMAs at the LAT HQ, and strives to be as fast and accurate as possible. This will be updated constantly throughout the night.

There may be typos.

Carrie Underwood, ‘Songs Like This.’ The host of the show gets things going with her Nashville-via-Shania Twain rocker, and a a song that works on country radio simply because it uses a banjo as if it’s a lead guitar. Sporting red heels and a glittery silver dress that looks like it was ripped from a made-for-TV-version of ‘Tron,’ Underwood howled and wailed and started the show with a high energy pop tune. It was Keith Urban who gave Underwood an assist on the banjo, and co-host Brad Paisley who wielded the guitar. A minute or two later the hosts gave a shout-out to Gwyneth Paltrow, who was sitting in the audience and will perform tonight, but were careful to say this show is broadcast from Nashville rather than Los Angeles. Underwood’s performance, however, was all Hollywood. Grade: B-. Bonus grade: Paisley doing country versions of Lady Gaga songs in the opening monologue: A


Rascal Flatts, ‘Why Wait’ The stage is going for a Las Vegas look, but this is all Branson, Mo., shtick. Proving that a country sparkle is not just for the genre’s leading ladies, singer Gary LeVox paces the stage in a shiny purple shirt, doing his best to justify rushing into marriage. Why not? The angry drunk divorce songs can come on Album No. 10. Like too much of mainstream country, this is Nashville comfort food, and it’s easy to knock the plain-and-simple quality of the band. But Rascal Flatts look like they’re fancy accountants playing Western dress-up for the night, and I find the look too charming to hate. Grade: C

Blake Shelton, ‘All About Tonight.’When Blake’s girl Miranda Lambert was onstage accepting an award for “The House That Built Me,” writers Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin noted that the song could have easily gone to Blake. Shelton’s ‘All About Tonight’ could just have easily gone to Rascal Flatts, as there’s little to distinguish this tossed-off party tune. Though it’s odd to hear Shelton sing the line ‘we’re rocking all kinds of concoctions in our hands’ (you know things are getting RECKLESS when there’s ‘CONCOCTIONS'), the tune comes and goes, and without an impact. Grade: D

Miranda Lambert, ‘That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round.’The Nashville scene has an artist who’s long been deserving of Taylor Swift-like adulations, and that artist is Miranda Lambert. Expect this to be her year to break through to household name status, and she did nothing to hurt her chances tonight. Lambert was devastatingly fierce from the moment the song started, casually leaning on her microphone and snarling lyrics about a lady who “beats her old man with her pantyhose.” Finally, the CMAs offer a song with a bit of personality -- not that Miranda needs any more. She’s distinguished herself from the other country ladies by taking on a rougher, old-school edge, and she plays it well. If Carrie Underwood looks like a Disney princess, Lambert is the opposite. Her hair is loose and frayed, and her Southern rasp is laced with unpredictability. When she fist punches each guitar riff, you better get out of the way. Team Lambert. Grade: A (NOTE: Earlier, in a moment of haste, I wrote that Lambert performed ‘The House That Built Me.’ Grrrr. Embarrassing, but the latter was on my mind, and I was moving fast.)

George Strait, ‘The Breath You Take.’ One can rarely go wrong with Strait, and Strait was on point here. From the opening moments of the song, when Strait laid out a portrait of a father and son connecting on a baseball diamond, one knew a tearjerker was coming. Strait delivers with elegance. If there was a problem, it’s that the beautiful number came right after Miranda got the party started. Grade: B+

Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson, ‘As She’s Walking Away.’These country good ol’ boys just won best new artist, and they never fail at kicking up a tailgate-worthy party. But there’s no real heartache in this tale about a gal who got away. ‘I don’t even know her name,’ Zac sang in this toss-off song of regret, one that comes complete with ‘roll the dice’ lyrical cliches. Grade: D+

Kenny Chesney, ‘The Boys of Fall.’ Nothing adds some oomph to a song about pigskin nostalgia like John Madden interludes. Skip. Grade: F.

Taylor Swift, ‘Back to December.’
One of the world’s biggest pop stars has had some shaky award show moments, and she faced plenty of criticism after her Grammy appearance with Stevie Nicks. Swift stayed in her comfort zone here, though watching her felt a bit like watching a figure skater who’s had some falls on the big stage. Accompanied by a string section and fake snow, Swift kept it simple. As long as you don’t listen to the lyrics (‘Turns out freedom ain’t nothing but missing you’), this is a big-moment ballad, and Swift rose to the occasion. Grade: B+

Sugarland, ‘Stuck Like Glue.’ No doubt the night’s weirdest performance. I’m putting Sugarland in the so-embarrassingly-awful-that-it-was-kinda-awesome category. The stage was dressed like a music box, but it really just looked like a Target commercial. Jennifer Nettles acted like a wind-up toy, which finally explains her Elaine Benes-like dance moves, and for some reason there was a stationary tutu that was used as a prop. Following? Neither was anyone else here, yet just try to not watch this whole performance on YouTube. It’s cringe-inducing, yes, especially the out-of-place reggae-rap thing (!?!). I think Sugarland just created (‘concocted?’) Nashville’s ‘Troll 2.’ Grade: A.

Keith Urban, ‘Put You in a Song.’ This New Zealander does country fit for a Super Bowl halftime show, but this is the second song tonight about someone inspiring a song. After Sugarland’s Candyland-like get-up, Urban straightened the night out. In other words, he brought it back to middle-of-the-road dullness. Grade: C+

Reba McEntire, ‘If I Were a Boy.’ Does the world need another version of the Beyoncé hit? Probably not, and one might wish that Reba had dug a little deeper in this cover, which appears on her new album, ‘All the Women I Am,’ but Reba’s take is subtle and stately. There’s nary a song that couldn’t benefit from a little of Reba’s grace. No one is going to forget Beyoncé's take, but whereas the R&B singer reaches for the stars, Reba goes straight to the heart. Grade: B

Jason Aldean & Kelly Clarkson, ‘Don’t You Wanna Stay?’ A ballad that turned into some oddly orchestrated ‘80s hair metal tune. It’s an easy slam, but this is ‘American Idol’ bombast. Grade: D

ALBUM OF THE YEAR: MIRANDA LAMBERT’S ‘REVOLUTION.’ Pop & Hiss has been a champion of Lambert for quite some time now, and one can consider her the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Taylor Swift’s teenage innocence. She’s an ol'-fashioned singer with a whiskey-stained voice, and though she’s no old soul, she’s downright rebellious, compared to the Nashville establishment. After Nashville backed Swift, championing Lambert is a sign that the CMAs aren’t going to cater to mainstream popularity again. Look for Lambert to take her CMA win straight to an album of the year nod at the Grammy Awards.

Brad Paisley, ‘This Is Country Music.’A new song from the co-host, and it’s a giant mishmash of wrong. It appears to be a pat-on-the-back patriotic sing-along about the awesomeness of country music, but who really knows? So where to start? Paisley has no clue himself. This is how the song opens: ‘You’re not supposed to say the word cancer in a song.’ Right-o. I would have gone with Alzheimer’s myself, dude. By the end of the song, Paisley has pandered to the audience by giving shout-outs to John Denver and Johnny Cash, and there appears to be a dead mother at some point, as well as numerous ‘God bless America’ call-outs. Paisley’s a likable-enough performer, but this is a collage of bad ideas. Grade: D

Lady Antebellum, ‘Hello World.’ Yea! Someone in the ABC control booth hit the snooze button! So ... we get a 5½-minute nap, right? Grade: C (naps aren’t so bad).

Kid Rock, ‘Born Free.’

So...over on Comedy Central tonight, ‘South Park’s’ Cartman was riding the back of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, hoping to use the creature to destroy his friends. A shame, as there was a better Cthulhu target over on ABC.

‘Born Free’ doesn’t even merit a grade. It deserves to be destroyed by a hellish reign of terror:

Photoshopped images: Kid Rock at the MTV Europe Music Awards (Getty): Cthulhu (‘South Park’ Studios).

Carrie Underwood, ‘Mama’s Song.’ A signature Underwood song, but really no reason to give the artist two performances. The CMA Awards are starting to feel like they’re padding, and this wedding-dance song isn’t helping the pace, regardless of how studiously Underwood performs it. Grade: C+

Dierks Bentley, ‘Up On the Ridge.’ The CMA Awards are bringing the performances fast, and thankfully, Dierks Bentley performs with brevity. The rushed acoustics have a slightly spooked edge, and though these write-ups are getting shorter, ‘Up on the Ridge’ was one of the more textured tunes tonight. Grade: B

Miranda Lambert, Sheryl Crow & Loretta Lynn, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’ There’s been plenty of hyped-up words spilled on Lambert tonight, and though Lambert and Crow gave a faithful take on Lynn’s country classic, the moment was overshadowed by Lambert accepting her award for female vocalist of the year. Standing with the legend, Lambert broke down in tears, and received a peck on the cheek from Lynn. A few minutes earlier, Lambert, Crow and Lynn shared lines on ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ and it was a treat watching Lambert and Lynn onstage together. Crow, to be fair, held her own, but it was clear she was there for crossover star power. Still: Grade: A

Gwyneth Paltrow & Vince Gill, ‘Country Song.’ This was a stunt performance to hype the film for which the song takes its name, but what does it say about mainstream country if Paltrow can take the stage and sing with more poise and barroom bitterness than a number of other blond country starlets? Paltrow struggled on a couple of notes, but she could cut a country album without embarrassing herself. Vocally, she possesses a sunburned tinge, and it would no doubt be a nice complement to Chris Martin’s pillow-soft vocals, should she ever cut a duet with her Coldplay husband. Grade: B+

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR: BRAD PAISLEY: Before Paisley was cut off, and before he started praising the likes of Live Nation and the William Morris Agency, he gave one of the more impassioned, heartfelt speeches of the night. One wished he would have continued telling tales about how he fell in love with country music. He dedicated the trophy to his late grandfather, who Paisley said loved Buck Owens and Johnny Cash. It was his grandfather, Paisley said, who encouraged him to play the guitar. ‘This is going to get you through lonely times, and you’ll never be alone with this,’ Paisley said through tears. It was a speech that redeemed his earlier song.

--Todd Martens

Image: Miranda Lambert at CMAs (Associated Press); Taylor Swift (Getty Images)