“This long, three-hour show can feel like four,” crooned Brad Paisley, affable cornball cohost of Wednesday evening’s 2018 CMA Awards, as he kicked off what is exhaustively referred to as “Country Music’s Biggest Night” with a little song-and-dance joke that was also a grim prophecy that was also a preemptive apology. As bloated award shows go, the Country Music Association’s annual gala—Nashville’s own Grammys, basically, just with more pyro, more crying dudes, more righteously bellowing pregnant women, more Burt Reynolds tributes, and more performers clutching red Solo cups—is, uh, pretty bloated. There is much to transcend, if one wishes to get to the transcendent stuff. The good news is Kacey Musgraves sang “Slow Burn.” The bad news is the journey to that arresting moment—the opening comedy sketch alone involved both a Luke Bryan flossing breakdown and a yodeling Walmart kid cameo—was very slow indeed.
The victors tonight ranged from the deserving but predictable (grizzled-soul belter and authenticity kingpin Chris Stapleton added three more trophies to his stash of several hundred) to the genuinely delightful (Musgraves’s splendid Golden Hour won Album of the Year) to the inexplicable (Keith Urban ended the show by taking home coveted Entertainer of the Year honors, to the audible disgust of country purists, clutching his wife, Nicole Kidman, for what felt like 10 minutes and crying after what felt like 10 seconds). The CMAs thrive on staid reliability (Paisley and Carrie Underwood have hosted the show for the past 11 years, and Stapleton will probably win multiple awards every year for the next 20) punctuated by thunderbolts of bracing oddness. The trick is to guess when they’ll strike and find something else to distract you in the meantime.
The rhinestone-ruffian throwback trio Midland covered Jerry Reed’s Smokey and the Bandit soundtrack jam “East Bound & Down,” complete with movie clips and Instagram-style camera filters to ensure a weedy ’70s look. Garth Brooks, debuting a top-secret new song called “Stronger Than Me,” threatened to burst into tears as he sang it directly to his wife, fellow ’90s-ascendent superstar Trisha Yearwood, in the front row. Burly and defiantly car-mechanic-casual young buck Luke Combs, fresh off his win for New Artist of the Year, held tight to his red Solo as he belted out a sad-sack anthem called “She Got the Best of Me”; the soft-rock duo Dan + Shay capped off their cheeseball power ballad “Tequila” by setting their piano on fire. What works best in this environment are big, goofy gestures or small, befuddling details. The boys all tried their best. But there were still fewer memorable performances by men than there were truly great performances by pregnant women.
This meant a very pregnant Carrie Underwood singing a very goopy song called “Love Wins,” but singing the hell out of it. (“Like, I literally hold out notes until I start seeing stars,” she told Vulture last week. “I will pass out some day onstage. It hasn’t happened yet, knock on wood.”) This meant a very pregnant Angaleena Presley, one-third of the rad barnstorming trio Pistol Annies, joining her cohorts Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert for an alarmingly rousing song called “Got My Name Changed Back.” (“I only have a private Facebook,” Lambert told Nashville Scene earlier this month, “and it’s to creep on my ex-boyfriends’ new wives.”) And this meant Morgane Stapleton, Chris’s pregnant wife, beaming as she helped Maren Morris and Mavis Staples thunder through “I’ll Take You There.” The Nashville machine’s aversion—and country radio’s especially—to women has long been a plain enough fact that it’s now a lame running CMAs joke, one among thousands. But every forgettable new Luke Bryan or Keith Urban or Brad Paisley single the show foists on you only drives home what a travesty that situation has become.
Which made Musgraves the best part of the night, as both a mildly surprising award winner and a guaranteed highlight of a performer. “Slow Burn” is an almost unbearably gentle song ill-suited to the clamor of a monolith award show, which relies on total bombast for both its better moments (including a very welcome bluegrass-detour tribute to Ricky Skaggs) and its worse ones (Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha bumbled through a string-soaked “Meant to Be,” the country megahit that will never die). Musgraves was enough of an outlier that her mere presence felt like a thrilling act of protest. Like the Pistol Annies or even the high-energy pop-country oddball Kelsea Ballerini, she’s almost too good for the CMAs, which meant that this year, the CMAs needed her more than ever.