Country music’s fastest rising stars Jason Aldean, Eric Church and Luke Bryan kicked off the Country Music Association Awards by joining forces.
Playing with a large American flag behind them, the trio of performers teamed up on Aldean’s new single “The Only Way I Know” from his new album “Night Train” and earned a standing ovation.
Most of country’s top stars were on hand Thursday night at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for the celebration with many slated to perform. Taylor Swift arrived in a detailed red lace dress to some of the night’s loudest cheers and mingled with fans who had made signs to draw her attention. Art imitated life as stars from the new ABC drama “Nashville” like Hayden Panetierre mingled with the folks they mimic, drawing just as many screams.
Still to come were a tribute to Willie Nelson featuring Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Blake Shelton and Lady Antebellum, and performances by most of the night’s top nominees, including Swift, Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney.
Co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood poked a little fun at the night’s guest of honor.
“Tonight we are honoring the great Willie Nelson,” Paisley said, “and also simultaneously we are going to strip you of all your CMA Awards. Sorry.
“Because Willie,” Underwood said, “it appears there’s been some doping charges.”
The 79-year-old Nelson walked the carpet before the show with his wife, Annie. One of the most beloved figures in not just country music, but American popular culture, Nelson was stopped several times for hugs. He deflected most questions about the lifetime achievement award he would be receiving with jokes.
“It’s a great honor and I’m glad I achieved something,” he said.
Little Big Town won the first award of the telecast, taking single of the year for their rockin’ new song “Pontoon.”
That song’s hard edge reflects country’s changing face and fan base.
From Swift’s army of empowered young women to the power-drinking party boys who prefer Church and Jason, country’s audience is much different than it was 10 years ago and that’s reflected in the awards. Church benefited with a leading five nominations, including first-time appearances in the album and male vocalist of the year categories.
He’s not the only one. Country performers who have tasted their most significant success within the last five years outnumber the more established stars who’ve counted hits for a decade or more. Those newer artists also received the lion’s share of the nominations.
That may not be unusual in the pop, rock and hip-hop worlds. But country has long been a genre defined by listeners – and often stars – 35 and over.
The CMAs show that time may be over.
Swift and Aldean are nominated in the entertainer of the year category, with Kenny Chesney, Paisley and Blake Shelton. Luke Bryan and Church rewrote the script in two categories – male vocalist where they elbowed out established stars like three-time winner Paisley and Chesney and album of the year. They join young acts Miranda Lambert and Lady A in that category with Dierks Bentley rounding it out.
The vocal group category also is stocked only with younger hitmakers – Lady Antebellum, Zac Brown Band, The Band Perry and Eli Young Band join industry veterans Little Big Town. And new acts The Civil Wars, Love and Theft and Thompson Square join Big & Rich and Sugarland in the vocal duo category.
Winners in two categories were announced on “Good Morning America.” Chesney and McGraw’s “Feel Like a Rock Star” won musical event of the year and Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” won video of the year.
The broadcast caps a long day of celebration that started with a televised Reba McEntire performance in front of the arena and escalated as stars like Church, Aldean and Lady A arrived.
Fans held handmade signs aimed at getting Swift’s attention. Rising star Brantley Gilbert rode up on a Harley Davidson motorcycle before greeting fans. Kellie Pickler showed up in a silver dress and ultra-short hairdo after donating her golden locks to cancer victims. Hunter Hayes and Luke Bryan received some of the loudest screams from teenage fans. And art imitated life as Hayden Panettiere and stars from the new show “Nashville” walked the carpet, drawing cheers just like the real-life performers they mimic on the hour-long drama.
Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland showed off her baby bump in a black Donna Karan dress – which she loved because “it fits a pregnant body.” Not all of her wardrobe did, however.
“Walking in heels is a bit of a challenge at this point,” she joked.