A country superstar gone proudly (and successfully) pop, Taylor Swift was nowhere to be seen at the 48th annual Country Music Assn. Awards.
But, boy, was her presence felt.
Who else to credit -- or blame -- for the show's opening sequence, which featured Meghan Trainor singing her No. 1 hit "All About That Bass" with Miranda Lambert? Or the mystifying sight of pop-R&B vocalist Ariana Grande, who turned up to do "Bang Bang" with Little Big Town, a group she appeared unlikely to recognize on the street?
Welcoming viewers to Wednesday's festivities, broadcast on ABC from the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, CMA hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood gave a name to this condition: "postpartum Taylor Swift disorder." Symptoms include grief over Swift's departure from country music – a move she'd threatened for years but finally made official with last month's "1989" – as well as a desperate determination to fill the vacuum she left behind.
That eagerness has its merits. There's no doubt, for instance, that Swift's expansion of country – the way she reshaped its sound and some of its values – helped open the door for someone like Kacey Musgraves, who won the award for song of the year with "Follow Your Arrow," a clever, heartfelt paean to individualism that advises listeners to "say what you think" and "love who you love."
"Do you guys realize what this means for country music?" Musgraves asked as she accepted her trophy, and hopefully the answer is more songs as casually open-minded as "Follow Your Arrow."
Yet it was hard to detect anything beyond opportunism at work in Trainor's and Grande's messy, chemistry-free performances, both clear attempts to satisfy viewers accustomed to seeing Swift on the CMAs.
Then again, at least the interlopers brought some energy to this mostly charmless production.
Deflated or not by Swift's defection, many of Nashville's established stars were especially dull Wednesday, from Paisley to Keith Urban to Lady Antebellum to the normally exuberant Luke Bryan, who took home the night's top honor, entertainer of the year. (Other big winners included Blake Shelton, named male vocalist of the year, and Lambert, who won female vocalist of the year and album of the year for "Platinum.")
Jason Aldean dialed back his bro-country boisterousness for a sleepy version of "Burnin' It Down," while Dierks Bentley seemed more hungover than buzzed in "Drunk on a Plane."
And though Eric Church was clearly amped to duet with George Strait on "Cowboys Like Us," Strait looked ready to return to the semi-retirement he began earlier this year.
There were flashes of spirit, as in Little Big Town's appealingly sleazy "Day Drinking"; Shelton and Monroe's "Lonely Tonight," which they sang with eyes locked firmly on each other; and an intense version of "Something in the Water" by Underwood, who sacrificed her usual polish in order to show off the frayed edges of her voice.
More unexpected rawness came from Florida Georgia Line, whose stripped-down "Dirt" made the party-hearty duo sound like the Louvin Brothers compared to a slickster like Tim McGraw. Musgraves, too, went relatively rustic in a duet with Loretta Lynn on "You're Lookin' at Country," a classic from the era when a country singer was willing to sing the word "ham."
Was that too homely to entice members of next year's pop crop? Not to worry: Soon enough the Doobie Brothers were onstage, securing a route for the carpetbaggers to come.