Quality won out at the CMA awards on Thursday night, as Eric Church’s superb Chief won album of the year and the Miranda Lambert-Blake Shelton composition “Over You” took song of the year. The married couple Lambert and Shelton also won the female and male vocalist awards as well. The show itself was rife with agreeably overblown production numbers including a reproduction of a French cafe for Taylor Swift’s fine song “Begin Again” that looked as though it had been assembled from sets left over from an old Carol Burnett Show sketch. In other words, the night was a hoot.
Speaking of sets, Faith Hill seemed to have borrowed hers from the ABC chestnut Love American Style logo, a heart-shaped American flag. It’s too bad Hill’s voice was largely obscured by the sound mix — she sounds and looks great. Hill came across best during the all-star tribute to Willie Nelson (who was given a Lifetime Achievement award), singing a ringingly clear duet with hubby Tim McGraw on “Good Hearted Woman.” Could we please have a new Faith Hill album soon?
Hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley opened the show with jokes about the pregnancy of Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles (she was in the audience, her due-date close), PSY’s “Gangnam Style” (Underwood’s execution of the dance move in very high heels was impressive), and a routine about Taylor Swift’s romance with the Kennedy family and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” that seemed to have everyone laughing except, perhaps, Swift — why else would the cameras not cut to her, as they did to every other celeb for every other little punchline?
No matter: Underwood and Paisley underpinned their joshing with excellent performances. In addition to individual big staged performances, they had a couple of acoustic moments that were wonderful: Paisley playing a guitar version of the Andy Griffith Show theme as a salute to the late Griffith, and Underwood led the duo in a fine little snippet of the great Connie Smith hit (written by Bill Anderson) “Once A Day.” (Smith, who’s married to Marty Stuart, was in the audience.)
Lots of young performers used their CMA time wisely. Hunter Hayes, who snagged the new-artist award out from under Brantley Gilbert, delivered a solid version of “Wanted” while seated at a piano. Gilbert himself turned in a muscular performance of “Country Must Be Country Wide” whenever he wasn’t flexing his tats and making with the funk gestures. Swift’s “Begin Again” is a very good song, one of the few on the pop-dominated Red with a mandolin and which therefore signifies as country. The Eli Young Band’s “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” stood up to the big venue, and Jason Aldean is a shameless showboater who’s irresistible. And my man Eric Church — I mean, “Springsteen” isn’t even the strongest song on Chief by a long shot, and he still managed to make it one of the high points of the night.
If one award winner seemed to startle and thrill the industry audience, it was Little Big Town taking the Vocal Group award away from three-time winner Lady Antebellum. The joint went nuts, and Town member Karen Fairchild delivered one of the evening’s funnier acceptance speeches here, attaching “… and Jesus” to every record company employee the group thanked.
Some of the ’80s-rock-concert staging of a few of the performances worked against the music. Tim McGraw was nearly drowned out by an over-amplified attempt to be anthemic, while the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” isn’t nearly as bombastic when you hear it on the radio as when the trio adds melodramatic hand gestures and flourishes to its stadium-enlarged delivery of the tune this night.
The ABC show also featured lots of plugs and ads for ABC shows like Nashville (watch this, willya?), Reba McEntire’s Malibu Country, and even enlisted Tim Allen (his Last Man Standing shares a time-period hour with Malibu) to present the entertainer of the year. Which turned out to be Blake Shelton, in what must be considered a surprise given the competition of Taylor Swift and Jason Aldean. “Entertainer of the year? What are you talkin’ about?” Shelton said, genuinely surprised. Hey, I love Shelton, but you gotta admit: He won this because he’s currently country music’s most mass-audience good will ambassador on The Voice. “I don’t know how this happened. I freakin’ love it, though.”