Keith Urban, Chris Stapleton, and Carrie Underwood Highlight the 2018 CMA Awards

The 52nd Annual CMA Awards was broadcast live tonight from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, with Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood co-hosting the ceremony for their eleventh year in a row, in a stretch just one year short of meeting the record held by Vince Gill. Before the show aired, a few early winners were announced. David Lee Murphy and Kenny Chesney won Musical Event of the Year, and Thomas Rhett took home the trophy for Video of the Year for “Marry Me. ”

Garth Brooks opened the show with a moment of silence to honor those killed in the shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. A considerable number of country fans are so gung-ho second amendment as to advocate for guns in bars, of all places, and the mass shooting epidemic has become so widespread as to inspire songs from both Carrie Underwood and Kane Brown this year, so this was a reasonable way to start the night. Luke Bryan then kicked off the show, declaring, “Let’s be proud of what makes us country tonight,” and launching into a performance of “What Makes You Country.” Surprise guests kept entering from all directions until it had become an impressively star-studded opening, with Shaley McBryde, Jon Pardi, Luke Combs, Lindsey Ell, and Cole Swindell all joining Bryan on stage.

Paisley and Underwood began with a little humorous ditty about Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born,” incorporating names of audience members. There was some light hearted banter about Underwood’s pregnancy and about Paisley starting a “whiskey daycare center.” At one point, Underwood mentioned someone proposing during the Emmys this year, to which Paisley hilariously retorted, “This is country music… One of our viewers is going to get divorced.” Maison Ramsey, the famous Walmart yodeling kid even took the stage to sing a few bars.

Song of the Year was the first award, with three of the nominated songs referencing liquor in their titles. The winner was “Broken Halos” by Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson. Stapleton had five nominations this year, more than anyone else attending, and he started things off strong. Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert performed their hit “Drown the Whiskey,” and Luke Combs took home New Country Artist of the Year, accepting the honor with a succinct, modest speech, ending with, “God, I love country music, man.” Thomas Rhett performed “Life Changes,” beginning in a dorm room set, and then wandering through the crowd, and onto the stage, surrounded by an entourage of dancers holding horns, and putting no effort whatsoever in to looking like they were really playing.

Next up, Dan + Shay performed “Tequila,’ creating quite a spectacle, with fire in the background. Stapleton won his second award for ”Broken Halos,” this time in the category of Single of the Year. In a brief, but gracious speech, he mentioned that the song is about people gone long before their time. Kelsea Ballerini gave a performance with a rather odd backup dancers’ routine involving chairs, of all things. Old Dominion won Vocal Group of the Year for “Hotel Key.” At this point in the ceremony, it’s very refreshing how straightforward CMA acceptance speeches are, compared to those of other award shows — no pontificating about political causes, and no need to bring out the violins. Underwood herself performed “Love Wins,” with arguably the most commanding stage presence yet. Then, country and bluegrass veteran Ricky Skaggs, newest member of the country hall of fame, took the stage, joined by a star-studded cast paying tribute to him, including Marty Stuart, Sierra Hull, Carson Peters, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban. Midland performed a tribute to Burt Reynolds. Kacey Musgraves won album of the year, and mentioned in her acceptance speech that she moved to Nashville exactly ten years ago. There was a performance by Luke Combs, and a rather farcical one by Keith Urban.

Garth Brooks came along for one of the night’s most anticipated performances. He agreed to take part only under the condition that he play an unreleased song dedicated to his wife. With just Brooks, his guitar, and some heartfelt lyrics, it was an especially moving moment. Brothers Osborne landed Vocal Duo of the Year, which is notable, as they represent some changing views in the country world, with their advocacy of marijuana and distaste for Trump. Pistol Annies performed “Got My Name Changed Back,” and the song’s sentiment, along with Musgraves’ big win and Underwood’s stellar performance make it a big night for the ladies. Dierks Bentley played his song “Burning Man,” and Chris Stapleton put on a bluesy performance, joined by Morgane Stapleton, Dave Cobb, Marty Stuart, Mavis Staples, and Maren Morris. Brad Paisley took his turn at performing, daring to go for a just-released song, “Bucked Off.” As in Brooks’ case, unfamiliar numbers are usually frowned on in award shows, but the song stood on its own merit.

Stapleton kept the prizes coming, landing Male Vocalist of the Year. Musgraves took the mic next, fresh from her big win, turning out a solid performance of her song “Slow Burn.” Eric Church followed, playing “Desperate Man” the title track from his underrated album. Carrie Underwood won the well-deserved honor of Female Vocalist of the Year, and finally Keith Urban was somewhat controversially voted Entertainer of the Year.  

Overall, the ceremony was an upbeat, entertaining event, much thanks to Paisley and Underwood’s affable presence. The number of surprise guests and extent of star power present was staggering. Stapleton was the biggest winner, taking home three major awards. Musgraves and Underwood also came out stars of the show. Urban’s recent output is considered anathema to country purists, and his superlative designation has some questioning the authority of the CMA’s. On the other hand, there was the Ricky Skaggs tribute, and several winners who seem to have been unanimously approved. Like all other genres, country is constantly evolving, and this year’s award show was a festive celebration of the colorful cast of characters in the current scene.

The 2018 CMA Awards was held on Nov. 14 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN.