The 47th Annual Country Music Association Awards were held Wednesday on a rainy night in Nashville, but despite the weather, the spirit of the artists and fans was high as Music City held court for all the world to see. And, on a night when the future of the format was served, the big award of the night went to one of the most legendary stars in the business. George Strait – who won the Entertainer of the Year trophy from the CMA in 1989 and 1990, returned to the ultimate winners' circle after an absence of 23 years.
Strait's win aside, it was a night for many of the bright young stars of the genre. Florida Georgia Line topped the Billboard Country Songs chart for a record-setting 24 weeks with "Cruise," and their record-setting performance was noted with their first CMA win for Single of the Year. The winning was not over for the Republic Nashville duo, as they also took home the Vocal Duo prize.
One of the biggest surprises of the evening was in the Song of the Year award, which went to Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary for their emotional "I Drive Your Truck," a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Country Airplay chart for Lee Brice. Another relative surprise was Blake Shelton's win for Album of the Year for "Based On A True Story."
Kacey Musgraves capped off a successful first year with a win in the New Artist of the Year category. In her acceptance speech, she thanked her family – including her grandmother, whom she said was her booking agent when she was ten years old. "CAA, you better step it up," she said, referring to powerhouse Creative Artists Agency. "She didn't make me sign a contract."
There were a trio of repeat winners during the evening. Little Big Town scored a second straight win for Vocal Group of the Year. Miranda Lambert joined Reba McEntire and Martina McBride as the only women to win the Female Vocalist of the Year prize four times. She thanked husband Blake Shelton for "putting up with my crap." Shelton also joined the four-time club as well, taking home Male Vocalist of the Year – a category he has won in since 2010.
Musgraves was tied with Taylor Swift for the most nominations during the evening, and Swift's name was called three times, including the presentation of the Pinnacle Award by Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Rascal Flatts, George Strait, Keith Urban, and Brad Paisley. Understandably, the moment was an emotional one for Swift, who was visibly moved to tears by the all-star presentation. The award was only presented once before, to Garth Brooks.
In categories announced prior to the telecast, Mac McAnally walked away with Musician of the Year for the sixth straight year, tying a mark set by Mark O'Connor from 1991-1996 (Chet Atkins still leads the category with nine wins). McGraw, Swift and Urban won the trophies for Musical Event of the Year and Video of the Year for "Highway Don't Care." It was McGraw's fourth win in the category, having earned the award with wife Hill in 1997, Tracy Lawrence and Kenny Chesney in 2007, and with the latter once again last year for their "Feel Like A Rock Star" single.
Performance-wise, it proved to be a night to remember. Bryan opened the show with a high-octane, abbreviated performance of "That's My Kind Of Night," before giving way to his former opening act, Florida Georgia Line. Eric Church performed his new single "The Outsiders," which drew from many different genres. McGraw – who will mark two decades in the top ten next year- showed that his talent is as cool and timeless as ever with a performance of his current "Southern Girl" single. Show co-host Underwood wasn't going to leave the rockin' to the guys, as she dazzled with a medley of hits from Blown Away that included "Good Girl." "Two Black Cadillacs," "See You Again," and the title cut.
However, it wasn't all high-flying action. Little Big Town's performance of "Sober" was one of the absolute highlights of the show, offering Kimberly Schlapman a rare opportunity to sing lead. The Band Perry's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely" was also one of the most well-received slower moments of the night with its' dramatic power arrangement. Luke Bryan returned to the stage late in the show to perform his new single, "Drink A Beer," in what might be the performance of his career. He performed it in honor of his late brother and sister, Chris and Kelly.
The night also featured several high-profile musical collaborations, such as Urban and Miranda Lambert, who performed "We Were Us." Swift performed a bluegrass-ish version of her single "Red," which featured performances from Vince Gill and Alison Krauss, among many of Nashville's top pickers, which earned a standing ovation. Hunter Hayes and Jason Mraz delighted the crowd with "Everybody's Got Somebody But Me."
Possibly the highlight of the evening was George Strait and Alan Jackson's tribute to George Jones. A two-time Male Vocalist of the Year (1980 and 1981). Jones passed away in April at the age of 81. The two performed his signature song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today" - the CMA Single and Song of the Year in 1980. It wasn't the only all-star salute of the night. Kenny Rogers won the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, as many of his hits were performed by Rascal Flatts ("Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In"), Darius Rucker ("The Gambler"), and Jennifer Nettles, who performed "Sweet Music Man" as well as "Islands In The Stream" with the singer – a recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductee.
The hosts of the show also got their digs in. In their opening monologue, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood performed "Why Can't We Be Friends," mocking some of the more newsworthy feuds this year. The song prompted Zac Brown and Luke Bryan to share a hug. Brown has taken some flak for his comments regarding Bryan's "That's My Kind Of Night" single. The hosts also poked fun at Obamacare and Miley Cyrus (multiple times), and performed a parody of "Blurred Lines" that brought the famous Robertson clan of "Duck Dynasty" fame to the stage. Jason Aldean offered a riveting performance of his recent hit "Night Train." Lady Antebellum returned to the performance stage with a bouncy version of their new single "Compass." The trio have been on hiatus following the birth of Hilary Scott's daughter Eisele Kaye.
Musgraves, one of country's biggest critical sweethearts of 2013, performed her current single "Follow Your Arrow," which included an unusual moment for a country awards show. The "live and let live" message of the song must not have agreed with everyone, as ABC censors bleeped the word "joint" from the song.