The 2017 edition of the CMT Music Awards emphasized the close relationship between country music and other strands of pop with a slew of eye-catching collaborations: Florida Georgia Line and the Chainsmokers, Luke Bryan and Jason Derulo, Brothers Osborne and Peter Frampton, Lady Antebellum plus Earth, Wind and Fire. Some of these were inspired, while others were less successful. The best duet still came from within country’s borders: Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood played an excellent version of “The Fighter.”
Nashville star Charles Esten hosted this year’s CMTs, taking the chance to plug his TV show and its move to — you guessed it — CMT, along with the success of Nashville’s hockey team, the Predators. Here are Billboard’s rankings of all the performances from worst to best.
12. Brett Eldredge — “Something I’m Good At”
Eldredge brought along a drum line to inject his latest single with extra vigor. The band’s bright colors and additional rhythmic power buoyed Eldredge during the song’s dragging half-rapped portions.
If these two duos aimed to illustrate how little space exists between the top 40 and the upper echelons of the Country Airplay charts, they succeeded: neither pair had to budge an inch to play the “Last Day Alive,” their collaboration from the Chainsmokers’ Memories… Do Not Open album. The whole thing was a mellow meeting of the minds; the most exciting part was the fireworks that brought the track to a close.
10. Kelsea Ballerini — “Legends”
Ballerini performed the lead single from her highly anticipated sophomore album at the CMTs the same day she released it to country radio and streaming services. It’s a happy post-breakup number, but it had few distinguishing characteristics onstage.
9. Thomas Rhett — “Craving You”
Rhett continued the shiny, uptempo direction of his 2015 album Tangled Up with “Craving You,” which was filled with quicksilver rhythm guitar. He was accompanied by half a dozen dancers, but there was no sign of Maren Morris, who duets with Rhett on the recording. Even with the trap-pop drop, it’s hard to bring new life to the love-as-addiction metaphor.
Derulo shined during Bryan’s “Strip It Down,” gliding easily through melismatic vocal passages in the sensual ballad. He showed similar grace during his own “Want to Want Me,” where the relentless falsetto runs sometimes tripped up his duet partner. Bryan adjusted by dropping into a more natural mid-range, while Derulo continued to flutter and spiral through weightless strings of high notes.
7. Little Big Town — “When Someone Stops Loving You”
On “When Someone Stops Loving You,” Little Big Town return to the southern soul mode that helped “Girl Crush” top the charts: a 6/8 beat and declarative rhythm guitar. The four-part harmonies could have used more volume, but the formula is hard to beat.
Three country stars kicked off the CMT Awards with a tribute to Gregg Allman, who died last month at age 69. They opened on a strong note, with all three stars trading verses and melding three-part harmonies around the same microphone — Lady Antebellum’s Kelley showed a rugged part of his vocal range that he rarely displays on recording. But once they joined a full band, including the Allman Brothers Band guitarist Derek Trucks, the performance lost some of its spark.
The star guest was mostly superfluous here: John Osborne is already a remarkable guitar player, so Frampton’s presence mainly served as an excuse for more solos. But TJ’s bottom-of-the-barrel vocals and the infectious, clap-happy pre-hook are too strong to shake off.
“You Look Good,” a graceful slice of blue-eyed soul penned by three songwriting aces — Hillary Lindsey, Ryan Hurd and busbee — made for a joyous final country song of the night. Lady Antebellum then joined Earth, Wind & Fire for the classic “September,” and here they were out of their comfort zone.
3. Miranda Lambert — “Pink Sunglasses”
Lambert brought casual authority to “Pink Sunglasses,” which appeared on last year’s The Weight of These Wings album. The rhythm section was the key to the track: the drummer laid down a lagging beat, and the bassist played a molasses-slow riff. Lambert left gaping, commanding pauses between lines for emphasis. Almost every celebrity in the crowd obtained a pair of pink sunglasses to augment the performance, but Lambert didn’t need their help.
2. Blake Shelton — “Every Time I Hear That Song”
Shelton has always excelled at power ballads, and he nailed this one, which skirts the line between power country and ’90s radio rock. Shelton ripped into the hook with haggard force and then flew into a delicate falsetto register to harmonize with his impressive backup singers at the end of each line. With small alterations, this could have appeared on a Weezer album two decades ago.
Urban and Underwood promised to radically rework their duet and succeeded on all fronts: in place of the steamrolling album version, they started “The Fighter” as a beat-less number shot through with yearning. Urban opened with pretty, languorous intro, and he traded lines with Underwood from across a distant walkway — a simple and effective staging device. By the time the drums kicked in, the audience was already swooning.