Respect for tradition met the desire to evolve at the 50th annual Country Music Assn. Awards, held Wednesday night at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
Country music’s most prestigious awards show, the three-hour production (broadcast live on ABC) opened with a kind of real-time version of an all-star music video the CMA recently released to celebrate its half-century in the trophy-bestowing business.
The quick-moving medley featured more than a dozen established country stars — including Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire and the show’s hosts, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood — performing country standards like “Mama Tried” and “Stand By Your Man” with help from several of the genre’s pioneers, such as Charley Pride and Roy Clark. (Randy Travis, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013, even put in a brief appearance, singing the last word of his signature song, “Forever and Ever, Amen.”)
To folks in the CMA’s core demographic, none of these artists required any introduction. Yet as each took the Bridgestone’s stage, his or her Twitter handle flashed onscreen, which seemed like a clear indication of the show’s hoped-for audience: that is, a crowd well stocked with folks unversed in even the basics of country music.
Indeed, the night’s most-hyped moment had Beyoncé joining the Dixie Chicks for a spirited, totally assured rendition of her rootsy “Daddy Lessons” (plus a bit of their “Long Time Gone”).
“Play that thing, girl, play that thing,” Beyoncé exhorted the Chicks’ fiddle player, Martie Maguire, and here was pop’s brightest superstar using her cultural fluency to make anyone feel welcome.
Anyone except those who thought Beyoncé herself had no right to be there, of course. Widely praised as it was online, the singer’s performance triggered a predictable backlash from country preservationists such as the Twitter user who called for a boycott of the CMAs.
And though Wednesday’s show contained additional moments of outreach — as when Underwood remade her “Dirty Laundry” with shades of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” — the CMAs also made sure to play to the genre’s conservative base. In part that was done with the awards — and by avoiding politics beyond a couple of harmless jokes.
Garth Brooks, that reliable brand name, was named entertainer of the year, while Lori McKenna’s pious “Humble and Kind” (written for Tim McGraw) beat out more daring tunes by Cam and Maren Morris for song of the year. Other big winners included Stapleton, for male vocalist of the year, and Eric Church, who took album of the year with “Mr. Misunderstood”; Kenny Chesney received the lifetime-achievement Pinnacle Award.
Then again, Morris — whose album “Hero” cleverly updates the sound and themes of classic country — was named new artist of the year, which suggests that her vision of the future is one approved by the insiders who make up the CMA. The 26-year-old also received a plum performance spot, singing her hit “My Church” with backing from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
However expansive her ideas, though, Morris represents the Nashville machine in a way that Beyoncé doesn’t. (Come to think of it, Morris represents Nashville in a way the Dixie Chicks no longer do either.)
And it was the happy perpetuation of that industry — rather than its disruption — that the bulk of this year’s performances seemed designed to ensure.
Throughout the night old songs were dusted off and shown still to work: “Jackson,” sung here by Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood; “Seven Spanish Angels,” by Stapleton and Dwight Yoakam; “Brand New Man,” by the tune’s original performers, Brooks & Dunn, with Jason Aldean.
Alan Jackson and George Strait teamed for a medley of the former’s “Remember When” and the latter’s “Troubadour,” each an argument that durability is its own reward. And though Miranda Lambert did a new song (“Vice”) about a recent breakup (from her ex-husband, Blake Shelton), the music felt purposefully lived-in, like the leather jacket she describes in the tune.
Even an embarrassing tribute to Dolly Parton by Jennifer Nettles and the a cappella group Pentatonix served in a funny way to shore up Nashville’s specialized position.