Performance photos by John Russell and Donn Jones
The earliest CMA Awards Show review came from the organization’s newly crowned Entertainer of the Year.
“I think this was the best [CMA] show I’ve ever seen,” said Brad Paisley. “And I’ve been watching it all my life. I loved every minute.
“Who Still Buys CDs? Country Fans” is the headline on an article in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine. Here’s why. Brad, himself, explained it in the new anthem he introduced on the telecast, “This Is Country Music.” You’ll probably have to wait until his forthcoming CD is issued next spring to hear it again, but it was a great “tease.” Here’s also why. Taylor Swift on piano with orchestral backing sang “Back to December,” her single that dropped the day before the show. Here’s why, again. Kenny Chesney performed the brilliantly written “Boys of Fall.” Here’s why. The glorious voices of Lady Antebellum presented the group’s current ballad “Hello World.” Here’s why. Sugarland gave its No. 1 hit “Stuck Like Glue” a wildly innovative production number.
Here’s why. Reba McEntire brilliantly retrofitted Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy.” Here’s why. Keith Urban rocked the house with “Put You in a Song,” Blake Shelton romped through “All About Tonight,” and Miranda Lambert merrily twirled and had a blast with John Prine’s hilarious “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round.”
Here’s why. George Strait crooned “Breath,” Kid Rock rocked “Born Free,” Carrie Underwood delivered the emotional goods on “Mama’s Song,” Rascal Flatts soared on “Why Wait,” Dierks Bentley got rootsy on “Up on the Ridge,” and Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson alternately harmonized (Jason) and created vocal fireworks (Kelly) on “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” Gwyneth Paltrow and Vince Gill delivered a goose-bumpy “Country Strong.” The Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson were spirited, breezy and utterly lovely with the sound they created on “As She’s Walking Away.” Miranda Lambert kicked off “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Sheryl Crow picked up the lyric. Then Loretta Lynn entered, to wild applause, and the three harmonized in the song’s finale. This is why we love country music.
Even the “snippets” were musically winning. Little Big Town were jaw dropping with a pitch-perfect, a cappella harmony treatment of “You Belong with Me” before announcing the Album of the Year winner. The Band Perry gave us an abbreviated version of its breakthrough hit “If I Die Young.” And Brad, again, shined (with Carrie) in his parodies of 2010 events to the tune of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” of the sexcapades of Tiger Woods and Brett Favre in a rewrite of “Tiger By the Tail,” and of wedding planning in a spoof of “Golden Ring.”
Most of these stars had bon mots for us backstage. “You won’t have trouble hearing from me,” said Loretta, saying that she has recorded a Christmas CD, a religious CD and 40 new songs she’s written.
“Within six months after I started singing, we were in Nashville,” she commented about her 50th year in show biz. “The rest is history.” At age 75, she still sounds spectacular. “I’d like you to remember me as a singer,” she added, “just a ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’
“I thank everybody who did the [new tribute] album. I thought they all did great.
“Would you ever think of anybody more country than Miranda Lambert? I love her singing. ‘Gunpowder and Lead’ is what she sings about.”
“This is the beginning,” said Miranda of winning Album, Video (with director Trey Fanjoy) and Female Vocalist of the Year. “I hope I’m here 40 years from now, handing out an award like Loretta did for me….I’ve never won a CMA. The three I won were all handed to me by friends of mine [Little Big Town, Kellie Pickler and Loretta]. It’s great that country music embraces one another. It’s special that way.
“Today is my 27th birthday and my 10th year of making music for a living.” She added that the expression on fiancé Blake Shelton’s face “meant everything to me” when he was announced as the surprise Male Vocalist winner. Blake also won Musical Event for “Hillbilly Bone” with an absent Trace Adkins.
“That’s how I like to start the night,” crowed Blake when he got Musical Event honors during the pre-telecast ceremony. “I can relax now and get drunk. If Trace were here, he’d probably say something like, ‘Y’all better be glad we won this, because otherwise, I would’a had to kick somebody’s ass.’”
But backstage after the show, Blake was clearly sobered and shaken by his other accolade. “I don’t know what to say to y’all,” he said. “I’ve used up all the stupid things I usually say….All I know is I’ve been sitting in that audience for 11 years [and not being recognized]. Between induction into the Opry and this Male Vocalist of the Year, when you find this out when you’re 34 years old, it’s a revelation.
“I love what I do. I hope I’m standing up here 20 years from now, just like George Strait.” The new prince and princess posed for photographers clinking their crystal trophies together, “toasting” their Male and Female Vocalist wins.
“I’m sure that Tim and Faith never set out to be the country couple. And that’s kind of Miranda and mine’s situation. For whatever reason, we’ve kinda gotten going at the same time. During the commercial break, we just kind of looked at each other. What can you say? ‘I’m proud of you, because I love you, and I’m proud of who you are.’”
Sugarland was backstage in the press room when Blake was named Male Vocalist. “All right, CMA: Shake it up!” commented Jennifer Nettles. “It’s gonna be fun at their house tonight!” added Kristian Bush.
Jennifer added that they’d come up with many of the production ideas themselves: “This song has a lot of levity to it, and we wanted to bring that to the performance.” As a dad, himself, Kristian admitted that a child announcing a career in music would make him uneasy. But his own father had “come around,” been supportive and was attending his first CMA show that night. “I am a happy girl,” concluded Jennifer.
“We were feeling the love tonight from our peers,” said Lady A’s Hillary Scott. “This has been the most incredible year of our lives.” Vocal Group and Single of the Year (“Need You Now”) were the act’s rewards. “Paul Worley and the musicians really deserve a lot of the credit for that record.”
“After we wrote it, we put it aside,” said Dave Haywood. “We liked it, but we didn’t know it was anything special.”
“We’re always thinking of the next record,” said Charles Kelley.
“I owe this award to my crew,” said Brad Paisley of his Entertainer win. Three weeks before his tour was to begin, he lost almost every bit of its equipment in the flood. His crew pulled it together. “This tour surprised me. The pat on the back I think I’m getting is, ‘Thank you for taking this out there to the people.’ That means more to me than anything.”
He described ‘This Is Country Music’ as, “a love song to my fans,” and added, “If there was ever a year I wanted to win this, this was it.”
The press room, by the way, was packed. We were shoulder-to-shoulder sardines in there, perhaps reflecting the sales the Rolling Stone article was referring to. Among my fellow sardines were Vernell Hackett, Tom Roland, Holly Gleason, Chuck Aly, Alan Mayor, Larry McCormick, Cindy Watts, Peter Cooper, Brian Mansfield, Donna Hughes (who got an offstage hug from Blake), Lukas Hendrickson, Hunter Kelly, Brad Schmitt (who is now writing for countryweekly.com), Craig Campbell, Grant Alverson, Tammi Arroyo, Wes Vause, Kay West, Tree Payne and Sanford Myers.
Catering was by Zoe’s Kitchen. As usual, we were given box lunches. But the sandwiches seemed extra good this year.
The raving evangelist with the megaphone and big signs on sticks in front of the arena was a nice touch. For a change, there were no fashion “train wrecks” on the black carpet arrivals (black, because of sponsorship by Jack Daniels). Marines in full dress uniforms opened limo doors. Martina McBride entered in electric-blue, one shoulder lame, accompanied by her daughters. Gretchen Wilson was in basic black with knee-high boots, also accompanied by her daughter. Jennifer Nettles was in strapless, floor-length pale blue taffeta with large blue stone earrings and a glittering bracelet. Hillary Scott was in a figure-hugging red strapless gown with big pouffy ruffles at the bodice and a flared fishtail hem. A tanned Sheryl Crow was in an asymmetrical, one-shoulder ombre chiffon gown gathered at the back with a multi-hued hem. On the carpet, she was embraced by Kimberly Williams Paisley, a vision in a vivid, azur floor-length satin number, also one-shouldered.
The one-shoulder thing was definitely a trend. There was also a notable lack of showy jewelry this year. And tresses tended toward the casual. Kellie Pickler and Laura Bell Bundy were notably flashy in golden gowns. Kellie’s had a plunging neckline, and she was flashing her big engagement ring. Songwriter Kyle Jacobs must be making more than I thought. Taylor Swift looked adult in a strapless floor-length red gown with a slit skirt. LeAnn Rimes was in a gray, draped micro mini with a metallic neckline and an upswept hairdo. Nicole Kidman was in knee-length white lace and cut-away red booties. Let the record show that Kid Rock wore a Jim Beam t-shirt on the Jack Daniels carpet.
Unquestionably the black-carpet dress of the night belonged to Gwyneth Paltrow. She entered in a draped, floor-length, body conscious, pastel, beaded chiffon gown by Versace, showing plenty of skin via cut-outs and slits. Show co-host Carrie Underwood went through, I think, eight costume changes during the evening.
Rodney Atkins hosted the pre-tel ceremonies, which honored hometown faves Gerry House and Lon Helton, among others. “They’re all better than me,” said Instrumentalist winner Mac McAnally of his competition. “But if this means I get to keep pickin,’ I’m the luckiest guy in the room.”
Presenters included Ty Pennington, Luke Bryan, Jerrod Niemann, Darius Rucker, Sissy Spacek, Sara Evans, Easton Corbin, Chris Young, Jeff Gordon, Joanna Garcia and Tim McGraw. And didn’t you just love Jimmy Dickens in snorkel gear portraying Nashville’s new flood-warning system?
Taking it all in were Allen Brown, Karen Byrd, Harold Bradley, Bill Anderson, Donna Meade Dean, Ralph Emery, Jimmy Fortune, Jim Foglesong, Ken Levitan, Paula Erickson, Frances Preston, Alabama’s Mark Herndon and Randy Owen, Charlie McCoy, Ferlin Husky and Jo Walker-Meador, who mothered the CMA to greatness.
Oh, one more thing. “I’m here because of you guys,” said Brad to the press corps. “You’ve shown me support over all these years.” Awwww.