REVIEW: 51st CMA Awards, Bridgestone Arena….From A Fan’s Perspective

“20 seconds to air…10 seconds to air….applause please”…It’s all a very contrived affair. We’re just extras on a TV set at the end of the day. It was a fascinating experience all round to attend this year’s CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena; after years of watching highlights, I was intrigued to see the event from the other angle. I have to say, you really have to be there to appreciate the scale of the whole event – from the utterly stunning staging to the seamless transitions between performances….to Carrie’s unbelievably frequent dress changes! It’s a slick and hugely impressive operation to say the least.

However, the arena announcer probably didn’t find it too slick! As the countdown clock ticked down and the arena gradually started filling up, it was fairly evident people weren’t going to be in their seats by the time Brad and Carrie hit the screens! People were asked politely to take their seats by an increasingly stressed-sounding man, before a Tennessean woman came on and exclaimed “don’t y’all make me come out there!”….rather funny to see it all unfold!

As the latecomers finally took their places, Eric Church kicked off the extravaganza with a spine-tingling performance of ‘Amazing Grace’ as a moment of remembrance, before Darius Rucker, Lady A and Keith Urban took the stage with the Hootie & The Blowfish classic ‘Hold My Hand’. A fitting start to an evening of great togetherness, strength and pride. The talk of Nashville after the ceremony was about how refreshing it was to see a proper ‘country’ show for a change; seemingly gone are the bro-country days and, unfortunately for Brian and Tyler, the Florida Georgia Line days of dominance. This was an evening bringing the focus back to real, authentic country music which was warmly received by all in attendance.

Performance of the night for me was Keith Urban with ‘Female’. I hadn’t heard the track prior to the awards and this one just hits you like a tonne of bricks. Shane McAnally, Nicole Gaylon and Ross Copperman couldn’t have come up with this masterpiece at a more poignant moment in society and it’s a mega-hit in waiting. Throughout the chorus you’re waiting for that big punch line at the end but it never comes, ending with ‘Female…’ giving you a moment to ponder. The staging for Keith’s performance was terrific; no glitz and glamour, just Keith standing alone in the spotlight with the lyrics of the chorus on the screen behind him. It was a real attention-grabber and left the audience wanting more.

Also, a big shout out to Miranda Lambert for showing some guts with the very traditional ‘To Learn Her’. Probably the most throwback track on her ‘Weight Of These Wings’ album, it raised a few eyebrows and was certainly a far cry from the likes of ‘Little Red Wagon’ that we’ve seen her unleash at award shows previously. Her performance was a powerful middle finger to the predictable nature of modern country radio, staying true to her roots and showing the world that traditional country still has a huge place in our genre. A pedal steel at the CMA Awards – who would have thought it?

Chris Stapleton added to that sentiment with the brilliant ‘Broken Halos’ from Album of the Year, ‘From A Room: Volume 1’. He and Morgane sounded as fabulous as ever; nobody’s voice can totally dominate an arena quite like Chris’. And wasn’t it fantastic to see Alan Jackson on stage too? His 1989 hit ‘Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow’ and 1991 hit ‘Don’t Rock The Jukebox’ had everyone up on their feet, including the front 3 blocks full of country superstars who were clearly in awe watching the master at work.

Garth’s performance needs no introduction and certainly caused a stir last week! If you’ve been living under a rock, lip-sync gate has been in full force. I was actually sitting behind the stage Garth performed on and didn’t realise at the time. He certainly provoked a lot of criticism, but it’s a tough one – do you give up the chance to perform on country music’s biggest platform? Well, more to the point, would country music’s biggest marketing machine give up the chance? Not in a million years. This is Garth Brooks, we shouldn’t be surprised. Leaving the lip-sync issue aside, the performance level was still insane; he actually took the stage 5 minutes beforehand to get ready, warming the crowd up in the process. He’s like a magnet – as soon as he appeared, the whole arena went wild. What was rather interesting was the crowd of people that you’ll see standing in front of the stage going crazy – they were all drafted in for that performance and that performance only. As soon as Garth had finished, they were off! Another unseen piece of pre-planned TV magic.

The CMA Awards wouldn’t be complete without its tear-jerking moments. Rascal Flatts and Dierks Bentley teamed up for a stellar rendition of Montgomery Gentry’s ‘My Town’, joined for the final verse by Eddie Montgomery. A touching tribute to Troy Gentry who tragically passed away after a helicopter crash earlier this year. We also had an incredibly emotional moment to reflect on the Route 91 Harvest attack; names of the victims were displayed on screen as Carrie absolutely stole the show with ‘Softly and Tenderly’. I can honestly say it was one of the greatest live performances I’ve ever seen; she lost it during the final verse but to get as far as that so flawlessly was just incredible. Little Big Town also displayed their vocal prowess once again with the Glen Campbell classic ‘Wichita Lineman’, which has actually been released digitally after such a glowing reaction from the viewers.

We were spoilt for collaborations too. The aforementioned Rascal Flatts and Dierks duet was superb, and we also had Kelsea and Reba coming together to perform Kelsea’s latest hit ‘Legends’, Brad Paisley and Kane Brown with ‘Heaven South’, Tim & Faith with their new single ‘The Rest Of Our Life’, and Maren Morris was joined by One Direction’s Niall Horan for their new track ‘Seeing Blind’. The line-up was so impressive this year that it’s difficult to process every performance – you wake up the next morning and it all suddenly hits you!

Being at the Bridgestone was certainly a bucket list moment ticked off the list for me, and I encourage any country music fanatic to go and do it. Yes, it’s very scripted, it’s stop-start all night, there are far too many ad breaks and we’d love to see more of every artist, but just being a part of the whole event was a very surreal experience and you won’t see a better selection of performers under one roof. A big shout out to the CMA team too, particularly the press representatives who made us feel so welcome and made it a hugely enjoyable day all round. Roll on next year!

Dan Wharton
@LifeInASong_Dan