CMA Awards 2017: All the Performances Ranked Worst to Best
The 2017 CMA Awards offered the usual wide range of musical options, encompassing performances from country stalwarts (Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks), today's radio hitmakers (Luke Bryan, Little Big Town), cross-generational pairings (Reba McEntire and Kelsea Ballerini, Brad Paisley and Kane Brown) and even a few pop interlopers: Pink showed up to promote her Beautiful Trauma album, and Niall Horan joined Maren Morris to duet on "Seeing Blind," which appeared on Horan's chart-topping Flicker LP. Here are Billboard's rankings of all the performances from worst to best.
Luke Bryan - "Light It Up"
Bryan wore all black onstage at the CMAs, a fitting outfit for a man with an angst-ridden single about the frustrations of communication in the modern age. "I get so neurotic about it, 'cause I know you're reading your phone," Bryan sang, but he's still better at projecting ease then distress.
Thomas Rhett - "Unforgettable"
Rhett moved between breezy acoustic verses and ringing, electric guitar-heavy hooks on "Unforgettable," co-written by aces from country (writers Shane McAnally and Ashley Gorley) and produced with crossover potential in mind by Julian Bunetta, best known for his work with One Direction. The performance was a low-stakes victory lap: Rhett's single hit No. 1 on Country Airplay this week.
Dan + Shay and Lauren Alaina - "Get Together" (The Youngbloods)
Not long after Little Big Town reiterated the power of kindness and love during their vocal group of the year acceptance speech, Dan + Shay and Lauren Alaina expressed a similar sentiment by covering the Sixties classic "Get Together:" "Come on people now, smile on your brother/ Everybody get together try to love one another right now." It seemed like overkill when the commercial that followed their performance also used the same Youngbloods' song.
Chris Stapleton - "Broken Halos"
After winning the album of the year award for From a Room: Volume 1, Stapleton took the stage at the CMA Awards to strum and rasp his way through "Broken Halos." He hit all his marks, but the performance felt a lot more dutiful than fun. Stapleton later won his third male vocalist of the year award.
Old Dominion - "No Such Thing As a Broken Heart"
Old Dominion had a tough act to follow coming after Pink. Lead singer Matthew Ramsey worked the crowd and encouraged listeners to love without restraint, but the memory of Pink's "Barbies" still lingered.
Jon Pardi - "Dirt On My Boots"
Pardi triumphed by earning nominations next to veteran hitmakers like Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert in the single of the year and song of the year categories; he also took home the new artist of the year award. His performance of "Dirt on My Boots" was faithful and unremarkable, but he had already triumphed.
Kelsea Ballerini and Reba McEntire - "Legends"
"We were legends," Ballerini sang, and then a real-life legend strolled on stage: Reba McEntire, who ripped through her solo parts and graciously dialed it back during the harmonies. But Ballerini wanted the legend to shine, and as "Legends" ended, she stopped singing momentarily to leave the spotlight to her veteran collaborator.
Church kicked off the CMAs singing "Amazing Grace" a capella, almost entirely shrouded in shadow, with just enough light to illuminate his always-present aviators. It was a startling way to start a show that's full of glitz and bright lights, but it didn't last long: Church soon passed the baton to Urban and Rucker, who began singing Hootie and the Blowfish's 1994 hit. A verse later, Lady Antebellum and a choir chipped in. It was already a lot to take in, and then it seemed like every country singer in Nashville -- Thomas Rhett, Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Little Big Town, Luke Bryan, among others -- appeared onstage to sing the final chorus. It was a grand ending, but not as impactful as the lonely opening.
Brad Paisley and Kane Brown - "Heaven South"
Paisley offered a vision of sunny, carefree world as he traded verses with Kane Brown on "Heaven South." But the escapism clashed with an urgent, if oblique, speech from Little Big Town about changing the status quo through love and kindness moments before.
Keith Urban - "Female"
Urban chose to debut his new single "Female," billed as a response to the allegations of sexual harassment and rape against Harvey Weinstein, alone onstage at the CMA Awards. A number of female voices swirled through the background as Urban sang what he described as a "gospel soul prayer mantra, all rolled into one."
Eric Church - "Chattanooga Lucy"
Eric Church took his usual southern-rock-circa-1970 approach to "Chattanooga Lucy," which originally appeared on the singer's 2015 album Mr. Misunderstood. Longtime backup singer Joanna Cotten torched through her parts, and Church played a fast-fingered acoustic solo. But the song has been out for more than two years, blunting its impact.
Alan Jackson - "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow," "Don't Rock the Jukebox"
Jackson returned to his 1990 hit "Chasin' That Neon Raimbow," and the audience was happy to bop along and sing every word; later he returned to close the night with "Don't Rock the Jukebox." These are two of many unimpeachable tracks in Jackson's deep back catalog, and they're guaranteed crowd pleasers. But why not perform his newest tune, "The Older I Get"?
Maren Morris and Niall Horan - "I Could Use a Love Song," "Seeing Blind"
Morris got a chance to sprint through a chorus of her hit "I Could Use a Love Song" before she joined with Horan on "Seeing Blind," which appeared on the former One Direction member's Flicker album. Horan sang clearly, demonstrating that English pop star can hold his own a world away in Nashville, and he was an energetic presence, strumming vigorously and smiling widely.
McGraw and Hill sang together on "It's Your Love" two decades ago; at this point, their duet game is practiced and precise. "The Rest of Our Life" is a laid-back 6/8 ballad, and they were comfortable and unhurried, staring into each other's eyes as they dug into the single's swelling, affectionate hooks. McGraw nailed his falsetto note without incident.
Bentley and Rascal Flatts' Gary LeVox paid tribute to Troy Gentry, who died in a helicopter crash in September, by revisiting the Montgomery Gentry hit "My Town." Bentley brought earthy gravitas to the verses, while LeVox handled the track's sing-song hook. But Montgomery stole the show: He stomped onstage twirling his mic, and barreled convincingly through the final verse.
Carrie Underwood - "Softly and Tenderly"
Everyone in the CMA Awards arena held up electric candles as Underwood soundtracked the "In Memoriam" segment. Underwood's expressive voice is well-suited to the slow, surging pace of hymns, but she ended the song with a devastated -- and devastating -- whisper as the faces of those killed in the Las Vegas shooting flashed on the screen behind her.
Brothers Osborne - "Ain't My Fault," "Tulsa Time"
Brothers Osborne made denial infectious in "Ain't My Fault," which moves between sludgy garage rock and a rushing, clap-happy, airwave-friendly hook. John, who appears to be gunning for Keith Urban's guitar-virtuoso-crown, played one of his typically impressive solos. The duo then transitioned into Don Williams' "Tulsa Time," but they might have been better served by playing this first; it was a marked drop in energy after "Ain't My Fault."
Miranda Lambert - "To Learn Her"
Lambert set up shop in a stage decked out like the interior of an old hotel, but the retro trappings were unnecessary: The dragging, unobtrusive back-beat, pedal steel guitar high in the mix and thunking notes plucked on a stand-up bass immediately signaled that this performance could have taken place at a CMA Awards ceremony decades ago. Many of Lambert's peers aimed for big gestures at the CMAs, but she demonstrated that you don't need spectacle to get your point across.
Garth Brooks - "Ask Me How I Know"
Brooks combined an affecting vocal performance -- he opened "Ask Me How I Know" by scraping the bottom edge of his vocal range, singing as if he was trying to put Trace Adkins out of work -- with his usual flair for drama: He sulked directly at the camera, communicating his frustration as much with his face as with his voice. "I'm just another fool," he sang, "and this is just another song." But he was being overly modest; it was a song performed by Garth Brooks. The singer won entertainer of the year later that night.
Pink - "Barbies"
P!nk almost stole the CMAs with a perfectly wistful version of her new song "Barbies." Her acoustic guitarist cycled through a twisting riff, two impressive backup vocalists added sizzling accompaniment during key moments and three string players added a soft layer of drama.
It was a tribute-heavy night at the CMA Awards, but no one matched Little Big Town, who excelled on a version of "Wichita Lineman." The famous tune was written by the fantastic Jimmy Web -- who was on hand to play piano -- and turned into a hit by Glen Campbell, who died in August. There was no fluff here, just lovely keyboard work from Webb, light guitar, and a series of unabashedly gorgeous four-part harmonies. When the camera cut to Faith Hill after the performance, she summed it up best: "Wow."