The 2018 Country Music Association Awards on Wednesday night (Nov. 14) returned to a well-worn theme for the CMAs in featuring young talent showing respect to their elders, but it was veterans schooling rookies all night long in terms of performances.
Many of the best moments for the younger set came in too-brief appearances; Lauren Alaina stunned in a short tribute to the late Dottie West, while eleven-year-old Mason Ramsey showcased vocals that deserved more recognition than just the brief moments of levity with hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood that were given to him.
The other side of the age range featured an extraordinary acoustic performance by a superstar, and a recent Country Music Hall of Famer supplying a staggering amount of musicianship to a generation of viewers that may have never heard his name before tonight. Here’s how Billboard ranks each full performance from worst to first.
Luke Combs, “She Got the Best of Me”
Moments after winning new artist of the year from the CMAs, Combs performed his current hit in front of the Bridgestone Arena crowd with an oddly sedate presence. Whether still overwhelmed by the feelings that came with the earlier win, or just enjoying whatever was in the red Solo cup he was holding, the young talent experiencing a phenomenal year on the charts came off lackluster.
Midland, “East Bound and Down”
The Texas trio inadvertently made a case for country fans who have railed against the act as inauthentic since they first found success, but delivering a tribute to the late Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed with a performance of the theme to Smokey and the Bandit that felt like a bad trip to the karaoke bar by the office staff after a particularly long day at work.
Maren Morris, Mavis Staples, Chris and Morgane Stapleton, and Marty Stuart, “Friendship”/”I’ll Take You There” Medley
One of the few collaborations to flounder on this night, made more surprising by the talent onstage. Some of the participants didn’t seem overly familiar with Stapleton’s “Friendship”, and once Staples and a backing gospel choir took over on “I’ll Take You There”, you wish the producers had just let the gospel legend take us to church all by her lonesome.
Dan + Shay, “Tequila”
The first entry here to really sting. The duo have made a quick name for themselves within the country fold for their masterful harmonies, but tonight’s performance was just missing that visual component that would have made their vocals stand out from the pack, instead of just standing mostly stationary throughout.
Florida Georgia Line & Bebe Rexha, “Meant to Be”
Hoo boy, where to start? The pair of country hitmakers performed while wearing matching white suits that looked like they were borrowed from a Backstreet Boys video in 1999, while Rexha missed a note here and there once she appeared in front of violinists playing a version of the monster hit that had been stripped down to strings. None of this worked.
Eric Church, “Desperate Man”
A last minute addition to the lineup of performers for this year’s CMAs, Church did his best to showcase the title track off his newest album, but the performance felt disjointed. Whether the blame for that goes to lack of time for the band to properly prepare, or if it was merely fatigue on everyone’s part beginning to set in as the three hour mark of the ceremony began to close in, who can say?
Brad Paisley, “Bucked Off”
The singer’s first new single in over a year was publicly unveiled for the viewing audience against a neon rodeo background. While the honky-tonker played well to the crowd, outside of a welcomed musical shoutout to George Strait at the end of the tune, everything here just felt like it’d been seen (and heard) before.
Jason Aldean & Miranda Lambert, “Drowns the Whiskey”
Aldean and Lambert were two of the first performers on the night, and were the first to slightly disappoint the viewer in presentation. Sure, some of the beauty of the song has to do with the timelessness of the lyrics, but sometimes you want delivery that consists of more than just two people standing at a couple of microphone stands. Lambert would show a little more spark later in the night with the Pistol Annies.
Luke Bryan and guests, “What Makes You Country”
For the second year the CMAs led off their ceremony with a tribute to a recent group of shooting victims, followed quickly thereafter by an all-star performance on a hit song. While last year’s choice in the Hootie and the Blowfish class “Hold My Hand” felt somewhat appropriate after a remembrance of the Las Vegas victims, Bryan’s rollicking country anthem was a baffling companion to a moment of silence for those suffering from last week’s Borderline shooting. A never-ending series of guests (Luke Combs and Chris Janson among them) found moments in the sun, but the whole thing just felt ill-timed and a little distasteful.
Pistol Annies, “Got My Name Changed Back”
Just over a week removed from the release of their much-anticipated third album Interstate Gospel, the trio (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley) made a case for being the answer for all of those who lament the continued exile of the Dixie Chicks from mainstream country music. If it’s possible for one to “shred” on the washboard, Lambert made a case for herself as doing so, as she attacked both the instrument and the song with a tenacity that was sorely missing from earlier performances on the night.
Carrie Underwood, “Love Wins”
During a night when the perennial cohost of the ceremony made a decision to stay away from politics in the opening monologue, Underwood made a case for most powerful performance on the night by taking on her current single. In an emotional display that stunned those watching, the female vocalist of the year winner is making a solid case for herself as one of the top female talents in country music history.
Old Dominion, “Hotel Key”
While they would go on to win vocal group of the year, Old Dominion takes this spot for being the first performers on the night to actually appear to be both having fun and appreciative of the moment. With a neon hotel sign illuminating the stage, and a song about a one-night stand becoming a hit on country radio, the band makes a strong case for sly adult themes in lyrics having a place within the mainstream audience.
Kacey Musgraves, “Slow Burn”
On a night that would see the talented singer-songwriter go on to win album of the year for the critically-lauded Golden Hour on the tenth anniversary of her move to Nashville, Musgraves made another strong case for herself being the most criminally overlooked artist in country today with a sultry rendition of the mellow standout track from the record. With a backdrop giving off a ’70s vibe, and masterful camerawork on the production side of the ceremony, this could be the moment that finally convinces radio programmers to stop ignoring the vocalist.
Dierks Bentley & Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man”
Performing their hit collaboration within a ring of fire onstage, the entertainers proved that a little showmanship can go a long way on a long night. A great choice to showcase the strengths of all involved, with great harmonizing being bookended by blistering guitar work, thanks to John Osborne.
Keith Urban, “Never Comin Down”
A showstopper performance from beginning to end, Urban was one of the few to embrace pyro, while standing high above the stage. This may have been the best reason that could be pointed toward as to why Urban would later be named entertainer of the year, as the stage setup at this moment may serve as an advertisement for Urban’s 2019 concert schedule.
Kelsea Ballerini, “Miss Me More”
The constant shadow that looms over Ballerini’s career remains Taylor Swift, as many continue to say the young country star’s career so closely mirrors the latter’s at roughly the same stage that it’s uncanny. The performance seen here won’t be changing those opinions anytime soon, as Ballerini was surrounded by 16 dancers acting out a choreographed routine unlike any seen tonight. With an upcoming headlining tour on the horizon, the young singer may be hinting at an arena run in the not too distant future.
Thomas Rhett, “Life Changes”
The first artist of the night to really embrace the visual component to an awards show performance, beginning this title track to his latest album on the bed of a dorm room set, and ending up surrounded by a full marching band playing along to his musical embrace of the path his life has gone post-college. Rhett made a name for himself in the past year as a true headlining act, and after tonight he should always be considered a heavy favorite for an entertainer of the year nomination.
Garth Brooks, “Stronger Than Me”
How does an artist considered one of the greatest of his generation hold his own against upstarts as talented as those seen tonight? By stripping away everything unnecessary in delivering one of the best songs he has released in years, and having what many consider the moment of the night. In unveiling a never-before-heard tribute to his wife, fellow country great Trisha Yearwood, Brooks relied on nothing more than his own words and an acoustic guitar to captivate the attention of the entire arena. As tears were shed by both he and his wife at the end of the song, everyone watching realized this was a highlight reel moment in a career defined by them.
Ricky Skaggs and Guests, Medley
In a year that included induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Skaggs introduced himself to a generation of country fan watching at home that may have never even heard of his name before tonight, but would remember it for years to come with a barnburner of a performance. In a three-parter that called to all aspects of his career, he began on one end of the stage with his bandmates in bluegrass outfit Kentucky Thunder on the classic “Black Eyed Susie”, before walking over and joining Keith Urban (subbing for an ailing Vince Gill) on his 1983 hit “Highway 40 Blues”, and then finally finishing up with Brad Paisley and Marty Stuart on a rambunctious rendition of Skaggs’ 1985 chart topper “Country Boy”. Unlike many tributes that tend to take place on awards shows, not only did a legend appear to arguably be in his prime, but was able to take on what could arguably be called the most talent to share one stage in CMA history and blow them away.