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CMA Awards 2015: Rule breakers and risk takers define the show

CMA Awards 2015: Rule breakers and risk takers define the show
Little Big Town performs Wednesday at the Country Music Assn. Awards in Nashville, Tenn. The group's "Girl Crush" was named single of the year. (Chris Pizzello / Invision)

Here's something that already seems like a forgotten detail from the 49th annual Country Music Assn. Awards: Luke Bryan, that grinning superstar scamp, was named entertainer of the year.

You could argue that Bryan's win made such little impact because it was merely a reiteration, the second year in a row he's taken Nashville's most prestigious title. Or perhaps it was because the presentation came at the tail end of an overstuffed show, broadcast live Wednesday night from the Bridgestone Arena, that, as always, had to race to cross the finish line.

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Really, though, Bryan was overshadowed at the CMAs by a more exciting story line: the anointment of a would-be outsider, bushy-bearded Chris Stapleton, as country's bright new hope. Never mind that Stapleton's shabby-chic songs have failed to find traction on country radio, which remains the genre's real-world kingmaker. Here he was named male artist of the year and new artist of the year, and his "Traveller" won the prize for album of the year – a clear indication of the industry's self-congratulating embrace.

Even Bryan, in his acceptance speech, had to admit it was Stapleton's night, a fact he described as "so uplifting."

The CMAs had more uplift in store – at least for those eager to see some expansion of country's boundaries – in the similarly improbable success of "Girl Crush," Little Big Town's slyly transgressive hit about same-sex attraction. A controversy-maker when it was first released to country radio, "Girl Crush" won awards Wednesday for single of the year and song of the year, the latter of which brought to the stage a trio of established female songwriters – Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose – for a sight more rare than it should be.

Of course, Nashville never allows progress without retreat, which is why the show began with a one-two punch of down-home nostalgia: Hank Williams Jr. and Eric Church growling their way through Neil Young's "Are You Ready for the Country" in front of an enormous American flag, followed by Keith Urban and John Mellencamp teaming up for Mellencamp's "Pink Houses." (Actually, the CMAs opened with a painfully unfunny "Star Wars"-inspired bit by the show's hosts, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. But the less said about that, the better.)

Other standard-bearers came and went throughout the evening, including a dreary Dierks Bentley, a weirdly aggro Zac Brown and Kenny Chesney, who sounded positively soggy in "Save It for a Rainy Day." Bryan did an OK version of his sensual "Strip It Down"; Underwood hit her marks in "Smoke Break" but mustered no fire.

Among the veterans, Miranda Lambert was the standout, in both her powerful, churning performance of "Bathroom Sink" and the speech she gave while accepting the prize for female artist of the year. Dressed down in jeans and a Chris Stapleton T-shirt, Lambert thanked the assembled gatekeepers for the honor (her sixth win in a row) and said, "I needed a bright spot this year" -- a reference presumably to her recent split from her husband, Blake Shelton, whose representative on Wednesday confirmed reports that Shelton had started dating Gwen Stefani, his costar on "The Voice."

Generally, though, the newcomers outshone the old-timers at the CMAs. Sam Hunt was tender and slick in "Take Your Time," his left-field country-soul hit. Maddie & Tae were hard and sparkly in "Girl in a Country Song," their giddy assault on Nashville patriarchy. And Stapleton made an impression sure to boost sales of "Traveller" by teaming with Justin Timberlake for a gorgeous, remarkably assured performance of "Tennessee Whiskey."

Does Timberlake count as a newcomer? Not in his world, of course. Here, though, the pop star was just a proud Memphis native eager to reassert his Southern-boy roots. As a not-quite outsider, he fit right in.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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