This year's CMA Awards offered two surprising cross-genre collaborations, a lot of topical Star Wars jokes, and a series of surprise wins for Chris Stapleton, the longtime songwriter who stepped out from behind the curtain to release a solo album this year. Here's Billboard's rankings of all the performances from best to worst.
Keith Urban - "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16"
Urban switched seamlessly from guitar to bass to perform one of the finer country singles of 2015. "John Cougar" -- written by Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman, and Josh Osborne -- is smooth and effective: the lyrics stitch together an endless number of American clichés, which provides cover for a slick, modern track, dusted with drum programming and dripping in funk.
Little Big Town - "Girl Crush"
Little Big Town won big at the CMAs with "Girl Crush," which is built on the formula perfected by the Memphis soul studio Stax back in the '60s. Though the group's outfits were loud -- displaying a 1979 discotheque level of shininess -- the performance was minimal. That fit the song, achieving an impressive union of content and presentation.
Inside the CMA Awards show performances:
Ever since the news dropped that Stapleton would be singing with Justin Timberlake, one question ruled: what would they sing? They took on "Tennessee Whiskey," a classic-soul indebted cut from Stapleton's debut album, The Traveller, so Timberlake didn't have to stray too far from R&B. (The tune was originally recorded by country titans like David Allan Coe and George Jones.) JT did fine on the second verse, and a third singer chimed in to create compelling three-part blends. The only problem was that Stapleton didn't need any help: his burred, all-encompassing voice made everyone else superfluous.
Maddie & Tae - "Girl in a Country Song"
The duo boldly performed their kinetic hit without the extra heft of a drum kit, but the track didn't lose a step -- a smash is a smash no matter how you dress it down. And despite the high-pressure situation, the girls' harmonies were nearly as impeccable on TV as they are on recording.
Miranda Lambert - "Bathroom Sink"
On the Platinum album, Lambert's "Bathroom Sink" evokes the '90s lo-fi indie band Sebadoh more than country music. When Lambert played it live, the arrangement sounded almost grunge; the singer donned a jean jacket and dyed parts of her hair pink, throwing her very own rock party.
Blake Shelton - "Gonna"
Shelton was in good form, ripping through his track with growly vigor and joyful "hey-heys." On a night ruled by slow tempos, Shelton had some of the most fun.
Kacey Musgraves - "Dime Store Cowgirl"
Musgraves played her sweet, rolling ode to small-town life on one of country music's biggest stages. It was a saccharine, feel-good moment: the band wore pink suits, and for the last part of the song, unicorns and a rainbow were projected onto the screen behind the singer.
Eric Church - "Mr. Misunderstood"
Ballads ruled the CMAs. Eric Church is a well-known Springsteen fan, and his latest single channels the Boss in stripped-down mode. This was a homerun: Church stared down the stage and worked up to snarling catharsis in his signature leather jacket and aviators.
Carrie Underwood - "Smoke Break"
Underwood brought her usual steely fervor to "Smoke Break." The single just helped the singer break a record: no other country artist has ever logged six career-opening number ones. Live, Underwood's fiery vocal combined with heavy doses of guitar to push the track towards southern rock and gospel.
You have to feel slightly bad for Rhett and Fall Out Boy: their collaboration was immediately overshadowed as soon as Justin Timberlake was announced as Stapleton's partner. But Rhett and FOB put together a vigorous performance involving an army of dancers to help smooth the transition from Rhett's "Crash And Burn" into "Uma Thurman." "Crash And Burn" was another one of the night's many nods to classic soul; funnily enough, Stapleton actually helped to write the track.
No rainbows here, but still a feel-good moment: the three stars slammed energetically through a pair of oldies. With so many hits between them, the main question was what songs would they pick? Reba reached back two decades to "Why Haven't I Heard From You," while Brooks & Dunn chose 2005's "Play Something Country."
Sam Hunt - "Take Your Time"
Brad Paisley got a lot of mileage out of making fun of Sam Hunt's vocal delivery throughout the night, and sure enough, when Hunt played "Take Your Time," the young star moved fluidly between singing and speaking. But he also struggled to hit the right the right notes at several points. His guitarist and backup singer did a good job of keeping his boss afloat.
Jason Aldean - "Gonna Know We Were"
The stage spouted flames during Aldean's rendition of "Gonna Know We Were." But the song was less exciting: a riff-heavy tune about living fast, dying young, and causing a ruckus.
Luke Bryan - "Strip It Down"
When Bryan played this misty, vaguely-sensual track at a show in New York City this summer, he sang it from behind a keyboard. At the CMAs, he had nothing to hide behind, and though he's usually an enthusiastic dancer, he stood awkwardly during his performance.
Mellencamp recently turned 64, but his voice still has gravelly power. His hit "Pink Houses" came out back in 1983 and reached the top 10 on the Hot 100 -- it's a durable, compact tune. Mellencamp plowed through the track, and Urban fit in where he was needed, providing delicate vocal support during the hook.
Kelsea Ballerini - "Love Me Like You Mean It"
Stapleton's win as "Best New Artist" -- part of his surprise triple crown -- overshadowed the strength of the category, which included Ballerini. She performed "Love Me Like You Mean It," which helped make her the first female singer with a No. 1 debut single since 2006. But she sounded as if she might be losing her voice.
Kenny Chesney - "Save It For a Rainy Day"
"Save It For A Rainy Day" isn't as powerfully streamlined as "American Kids," the lead single from The Big Revival. But it's impressively on-brand for a kiss-off, as Chesney refuses to let a broken heart distract him from the sun shining on his boat. He had an automatic advantage relative to the other performers at the CMAs: as a nod to his legendarily beach-friendly back catalog -- and his latest addition to it -- he played "Save It For A Rainy Day" in front of a tropical backdrop.
Williams and Church dueted with the help of an impressive cadre of backup singers and a horn section. Interestingly, "Are You Ready For The Country" was originally written by Neil Young and appeared on his Harvest album, but it was never one of his finest moments as a writer. It became a country hit when Waylon Jennings put it out in 1976. Williams and Church rendered the track as easy, uninspiring blues rock.
Like Aldean, Bentley incorporated a flame motif when performing the title track from his last album, though both the special effects and the song were less explosive. He was aided by the violin playing of Stirling, who traded theatrical moves with Bentley's lead guitarist.
Pentatonix - "Elvira"
The famous a cappella group offered quick tribute to the Oak Ridge Boys by performing "Elvira," which was recorded by Dallas Frazier and Kenny Rogers before the country quartet made it a hit in the early '80s. Country already has plenty of artful harmonies, so the presence of an a cappella group felt unnecessary.
Zac Brown Band - "Beautiful Drug"
Zac Brown released one of the most varied country albums of the year, and "Beautiful Drug" is currently climbing the country charts. It's got plenty of drive, but the love-as-narcotic metaphor has been done time and time again, and the group didn't bring much new to the concept in performance.
Florida Georgia Line - "Confession"
"Confession" is a serious song, with lines like "A little lost, a little found/ Waiting on a call from an angel." But it was hard to take the track seriously: coming out of smoke in front of cathedral-like backdrop, the two members of Florida Georgia Line looked they were auditioning for a movie about wizards. They also had a little trouble staying in tune.
Brad Paisley - "Country Nation"
When it was his turn to perform his latest single, the CMA co-host recycled the visual treatment from the "Country Nation" video: a sea of college sports mascots danced on bleachers behind him. Unfortunately, you would have gotten more excitement from watching an actual college marching band.
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