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The 50th Annual Country Music Association Awards proved to be both a celebration of the past twelve months in country music, but also a fond look back at the history of the genre, with a diverse mix of today’s stars, the all-time legends, and yes, Beyonce, in a guest role. In fact, the show was so packed with talent that it went 20 minutes over — a rarity for the ABC broadcast.
The evening ended with a return to the top by entertainer of the year Garth Brooks — who won the prize four times in the 1990s. “I want to thank the CMAs. This is very, very sweet,” Brooks said. “We are so damned lucky to be part of this thing called country music,” tipping his hat to the audience. His win in the category extended his record in the category to five wins — 1991, 1992, 1997, 1998 and now 2016.
It was also a big night for Carrie Underwood, who walked away the female vocalist of the year award, breaking a six-year winning streak by Miranda Lambert. Underwood won her first female vocalist in eight years — and fourth overall.
The show started with a montage of some of the most historic moments in CMA Awards past, ranging from Minnie Pearl to Garth Brooks to Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift, before segueing into a salute to many of the artists who made country history. Vince Gill and Ben Haggard, son of the late Merle, paid tribute to the late singer with a performance of “Mama Tried,” a No. 1 Billboard hit from 1968.
Brad Paisley and Roy Clark — the 1973 entertainer of the year winner — delivered a tribute to Clark’s “Hee Haw” co-host Buck Owens, while Paisley’s co-host, Carrie Underwood, paid homage to Tammy Wynette with a soaring delivery on “Stand By Your Man.”
Charley Pride, the big winner from the 1971 show, took viewers back in time with “Kiss An Angel Good Morning,” and Alabama — the first three-time entertainer of the year winners from 1982-84, delivered a rousing take on “Mountain Music.” Both Pride and Alabama are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and they were joined on stage by new inductee Charlie Daniels.
Reba McEntire — one of only a handful of female vocalists to be named as entertainer of the year (1986) — brought the crowd to life with a portion of her hit “Fancy.”
Other performers in the opening sequence included Dwight Yoakam, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Ricky Skaggs, who showed his guitar prowess to be much the same that it was in 1985, when he was named entertainer of the year. The opening slot ended with Underwood and Paisley leading the crowd with Randy Travis’ “Forever and Ever, Amen.” Travis was on stage, and delivered the final note of the 1987 single of the year.
In their opening monologue, the show’s hosts poked fun at the long and winding election season, with Paisley humorously saying “The awards are rigged,” and calling Underwood a “nasty woman.”
In addition to celebrating the heritage of the show, there were new winners to be presented. The first winner was Thomas Rhett, who claimed the single of the year award for “Die A Happy Man.” In his remarks, he credited his wife for being the inspiration behind the song’s lyrics. Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” netted tunesmith Lori McKenna a trophy for song of the year. It was her second straight win in the category, having been one of three writers of last year’s winner, “Girl Crush.”
Little Big Town, who recorded last year’s song of the year, repeated in the vocal group of the year field, winning their fifth straight such award. The incredible career streak of Chris Stapleton continued into 2016, with his second straight win as male vocalist of the year. The night was also one to remember for Maren Morris — who walked off with the new artist of the year prize — after not even being at the show in 2015. “Last year, I sat across the street in a bar and watched this show,” she said. “I never thought as a songwriter, I’d be standing here today.” Eric Church won album of the year for Mr. Misunderstood, and quipped to the audience “I don’t know what’s better, winning this award or having Faith Hill fixing my tie,” after the presenter straightened his bowtie.
There were a couple of special award presentations. Longtime friend Peyton Manning presented Kenny Chesney with the Pinnacle Award, presented for only the third time in history. “Standing up here in this spot tonight, looking out at a lot of friends and heroes that have touched my life in so many ways. Your music, and your songs showed me it was possible…I want to thank the CMA for such an unbelievable honor. When I think about what this means to me, it means connection with a lot of people that have invested a lot of their life in my music and what we do. To those fans out there, who we call ‘No Shoes Nation,’ I want to thank you for allowing me and my band and my road family to hold your lives in the palm of our hand for a little while…Thanks for giving me an amazing life.”
Another artist who continues to have an amazing career is Chesney’s fellow East Tennessean, Dolly Parton. The Country Music Hall of Famer added to her impressive resume with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award after being saluted in song by Jennifer Nettles and Pentatonix (“Jolene”), McEntire (“9 To 5”), and Kacey Musgraves (“Here You Come Again”), as well as by Martina McBride and Underwood on “I Will Always Love You.” The always-quotable Parton was good for a few during her speech, quipping “I would cry, but I didn’t want to mess up my eyelashes. For me to be receiving the Willie Nelson Award is a absolute….high for me…..He’s had some highs that border on historic.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was Brothers Osborne’s win for vocal duo of the year, dethroning Florida Georgia Line after a three-year run. “New artists out there, don’t give up. If we can do it, you can do it,” said the duo’s John Osborne in their acceptance remarks.
In awards presented earlier in the day on Good Morning America, Dierks Bentley and Elle King nabbed the musical event of the year for “Different For Girls,” and Chris Stapleton won the Video of the Year trophy for “Fire Away.” Presented off-camera during the night was the musician of the year honor, which went to Dann Huff, his first win in the category since 2004.
Performance-wise, the highlights of the show included Morris’ out-of-the-ballpark version of her hit “My Church,” which took on a decidedly bluesy version with The McCrary Sisters and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Kelsea Ballerini’s shimmering version of her No. 1 hit “Peter Pan,” which included two dancers — first on stage, then flying in the air — to set the tone of the song.
Carrie Underwood — whose Storyteller tour has been one of the biggest box-office draws this year — showed her stage moxie with an attitude-laden version of her current single, “Dirty Laundry.” Little Big Town showcased their airtight harmonies on their new single, “Better Man,” which was written by Taylor Swift. McGraw powered his way through an emotional rendering of “Humble and Kind,” one of the night’s big winners. Keith Urban, whose Ripcord disc has been one of the format’s brightest albums of 2016, gave a definite retro feel to his “Blue Ain’t Your Color.”
Several of the performers opted to go a classic route with the Silver Anniversary theme. Jason Aldean teamed up with Brooks and Dunn for “Brand New Man,” the song that launched the duo’s career in 1991. Husband and wife Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood scored with their tribute to legendary duets Johnny Cash and June Carter, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and George Jones and Tammy Wynette — who ironically never won a CMA vocal duet trophy together. Their performance also included nods to Lynn Anderson, Roger Miller, and Keith Whitley. Paisley teamed with the Oak Ridge Boys for a bit of “Elvira” that continued in the packed Bridgestone Arena even after ABC went to commercial break. Alan Jackson and George Strait paired up for a medley of their hits, including “Remember When” (which included clips of past acceptance speeches by Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Wynette among others) and “Troubadour.” Chris Stapleton and Dwight Yoakam paid tribute to the genre-shattering pairing of Willie Nelson and Ray Charles on “Seven Spanish Angels.”
And, there was Beyonce. All of Nashville was abuzz earlier today with news that the pop icon would be performing on the show, and indeed she did — collaborating with the Dixie Chicks on a bopping performance of her “Daddy Lessons,” which the 2000 entertainer of the year winners performed on their latest tour, garnering was to be one of many standing ovations during the night.
Deborah Evans Price contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared on Billboard.com.
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