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7:55 p.m. The CMA Awards will kick off in a few minutes. Who will take home the most trophies? If Taylor Swift wins Entertainer of the Year, she will be the only woman to have won it three times. Will Lady Antebellum take home group and album of the year? We'll be watching the show along with you.
8: Jason Aldean opens the show with a dedication to New York and New Jersey before launching into "The Only Way I Know," a tune off his new No. 1 album with Luke Bryan and Eric Church, who has the most nominations of all artists, with five. They are all dressed down as possible without coming out in pajamas. I know it's what they usually wear in concert, but it's a special night, guys. Have a little respect. Big names to open, but the performance is fairly standard as opposed to some kind of blockbuster one-of-a kind event.
8:06 Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley reunite to host again and come out with their now-familiar routine of coming up with a parody song, this time, they switch "Moves Like Jagger" to "Moves Like Haggard." They then go into a bit busting on Taylor Swift breaking up with Conor Kennedy. Please note, and this may be a first, the camera does not pan to Swift during the bit. That shows you just how much power Swift has.
8:08 Paisley just busted a move "Gangnam Style." Underwood follows suit. They are so relaxed with each other after a few years of doing this that they are willing to swing for the fences...whether it's galloping to Psy's horsey dance or making a motorboating joke. Another reason it works is because it reflects Paisley's goofy sense of humor.
8:12: Lisa Marie Presley is presenting Single of the Year. I predicted it will go to "Springsteen." She seems like she'd rather be anywhere but there and saying "Oh God," before she announces Little Big Town's "Pontoon" as the winner doesn't help. LBT, after toiling for years, finally landed their first No. 1 with "Pontoon," and this win feels like it's more for their career efforts than for this song, which is a fun trifle. Now they can go home and explain to their kids what "motorboating" means. Fun!
8:18: Paisley and Underwood are back, and with a costume change for both, go into a bit about inducing labor on Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, who looks like she could bust any minute. Whether you think the humor works, there's no denying that their loose-limbed playfulness and chemistry is real. They throw to TIm McGraw, who's playing the new single to his forthcoming album, "Two Lanes of Freedom," and first for Big Machine after a protracted legal battle with Curb. "One Of Those Nights" is a straight-up-the-middle mid-tempo country song that is fine, but nowhere near McGraw's best. It doesn't matter. It will go straight to No. 1.
8:23 Thompson Square wins vocal duo of the year, stopping Sugarland's multi-year run. Yes, Shawna Thompson does talk about her "me-maw's mason jar... " You are not going to hear that phrase on the BET Awards, I'm guessing.
8:28 Reigning female vocalist of the year Miranda Lambert pushes the show into overdrive with a high-octane performance of "Fastest Girl In Town." Sadly, the cameraman seems way more infatuated with the guitarist, who's matched his shirt with his guitar, than Lambert, so we miss most of her twirling away. Best performance of the three so far.
8:32 Lambert's performance is about as energetic as country gets. You're not going to get the acrobatics and dance moves (something horrific like Luke Bryan's "Country Girl (Shake It For Me)' nonwithstanding) on the CMAs. instead, you're going to get acts that really sing. There's generally no lipsyncing allowed here. Zac Brown Band are the perfect example. They may as well be statues for how much they're moving, but the Eagles-like harmonies and playing are on "Goodbye In Her Eyes."
8:40 Dierks Bentley's so laid back on "Tip It On Back" that he might just topple over. What's with the fog machines, dude? It's a song about drinking with some sly sexual innuendo. It's good, but there's something really sexy abut the recorded version on his current album that this performance doesn't capture.
8:45 We're getting lots of first live performances of new songs tonight: first McGraw and now The Band Perry with "Better Dig Two," the first single from their sophomore album. Reid Perry is rocking a cowboy hat that just looks silly. The set is filled with lasers, which don't fit the song's western, old-timey vibe, but at least they don't have the dirt smudges on their faces that they have in the ads for the single.
This rolls right into Church performing "Springsteen," and no, there is no chance that Bruce is coming out to join him. In fact, we've never heard any reaction from The Boss about the song. My goodness, Church is injecting a very-slowed down version of "Born To Run" into the song. Yeah, baby.. tramps like us, you know what we were born to do.
8:50 And now straight into Eli Young Band singing "Even If It Breaks Your Heart," which is up against "Springsteen" and three others for Song of the Year. Kellie Pickler, whose hair is growing out adorably after she cut it off to support a friend undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and Darius Rucker. The winner is "Over You," a song Blake Shelton co-wrote about losing his brother in a car accident when Blake was 14 years old. Shelton talks about how his dad told him he should write a song about his brother. Now Shelton's dad is dead, but Shelton says "he's still right." Lambert, who co-wrote and sang the song, is too choked up to get out more than a few words. There's not going to be a more sincere, beautiful acceptance speech of the night. It's a lovely, bittersweet moment.
9:02: The second hour opens with Paisley, alone on stage, playing the theme song to "The Andy Griffith Show," while photos of Griffith from that TV show through his appearance in Paisley's "Waiting on a Woman" video clip appear behind him. Nice. As a North Carolina girl, I sure wish Andy were still around.
9:05 Taylor Swift recreates the Paris scenery of her video for "Begin Again" as she debuts the song on the show. As you know, "Red" sold more than 1.2 million copies in its first week, the best of any album since Eminem in 2002. It's a low-key understated performance that suits the song. It's nice how the background shifts from day to night (or maybe our screen is just going dark). She gets a Standing O, but it's not for that performance, it's for pretending she's still a country artist and showing up. I have no problem with that.
9:11 LBT is performing newly-minted single of the year, "Pontoon," on what look like four individual boxes, but it turns out it's a pontoon boat. Clever lighting takes us onto the water for a little motorboating. It's a lifeless performance. Can I demand a re-vote? OK, that's a little harsh, but LBT has so many songs that show off their gorgeous harmonies better and are much more interesting, but I'm not going to begrudge them this win... for long.
9:18: Like Bryan's bringing it on his ode to goodbye sex, "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye." While I'm not always a fan of his songs, he's developed into an engaging performer. Oh.. there goes the cap flip. Is it written in his contract that he has to switch his cap from brim in the front to backwards every song? I'm just being churlish. It's one of the evening's strongest performances.
9:21: A still-pregnant Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush are presenting album of the year. My prediction is for "Chief." Yay! Got that one right! Church must have been sweating it there for a moment after "Springsteen" lost both single and song of the year. "I spent a lot of my career wondering where I fit in... too country, too rock.. I want to thank y'all for giving me somewhere to hang my hat," Church says. You mean he takes that thing off? We've never seen him without it or the sunglasses. When he finally changes his looks it's going to cause as much excitement as when Shelton got rid of his mullet.
9:33 Faith Hill is performing her new single, "American Heart. " When it doubt, throw in images from sea-to-shining-sea into a song for that pan-geographic appeal. Sadly, Hill is struggling to get her career back on track but this song may do it. It's No. 31 in its sixth week on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. You can feel the room rooting for her. This segues into Brantley Gilbert singing his first No. 1, "Country Must Be Country Wide." He may tip the scales to baseball caps over cowboy hats for the heat topper of choice. His vocal mix is horrible. As my colleague Holly Gleason noted on Facebook, there's a certain irony to having Gilbert name-check "Cash, Hank, Willie, and Waylon" in a song before naming the radio station winners. Don't make us point out why that's ironic.
9:47: Following a spirited performance by Keith Urban and Zac Brown, last year's new artists of the year, The Band Perry, present the award to Hunter Hayes. "Wanted" has been a huge hit that's starting to cross over, and the feeling is that he could grow into a strong artist. It some ways, it's a little premature. It's take a few years to see if the voters' faith is rewarded.
9:51: I am a major Brad Paisley fan, but his vocals are off tonight on new single, "Southern Comfort Zone." The song, however, is another reason I love Paisley. There is no other country artist out there right now who embraces the typical country tropes of trucks and sweet tea, but also addresses such topics as civil rights (as on "Welcome To The Future") or, in this case, realizing there's a big wide world out there and it's okay to want to see it all. My only problem with this song, and it's not a small one, is the incorporation of "Dixie." For too many people, it's a song that's linked to slavery, in the same way the Confederate flag is. We know that's not Paisley's intention by any means, but it's just an association that totally takes us out of the song.
10:04: Nothing says tornado like confetti. Seriously, Carrie Underwood, in a gray outfit the same color as the one her wax figure wears on the cover of "Blown Away," performs the album's title track. The song is her equivalent of Martina McBride's "Independence Day." She is a powerhouse vocalist and she's bringing it tonight. Yikes, she just hit a major clam, but recovers nicely. We'll see later if she can snare female vocalist from Miranda Lambert. Vocal group of the year goes to Little Big Town. I'd predicted it would go to Eli Young Band, clearly misreading the goodwill that LBT has built up over the years. As Kimberly Schlapman says, "This has been a 13-year journey." Then Karen Fairchild, drunk with excitement, starts thanking Jesus after every r thank you. Their husbands can't get a word in edgewise. We're not even sure Jesus himself could. It's a well-deserved award .
10:11: Jason Aldean, in his second performance of the night, rips through "Take A Little Ride," his latest No. 1 and first single off of "Night Train." On a side note, he seems to have totally weathered his little indiscretion from a few weeks ago. That's because he quickly admitted he was wrong, apologized and moved on. While his actions may have been questionable, his response was note perfect.
10:17: What do Kelly Clarkson and Vince Gill have in common? Neither one of them gets played on country radio these days as a solo artist... Meow. Here comes further cattiness. "Don't Rush" is a bad song that sounds like it got pulled out of a 1983 time capsule. Other than Gill's always impeccable, tasty playing (and his absence is radio's loss), it is a dated soft rock relic. Is it just me? Clarkson even sounds like Crystal Gayle on the track. As long as I'm being mean, what's that sofa covering she's wearing? Blake Shelton wins his third consecutive male vocalist of the year. That probably means that Miranda Lambert is a sure bet for her third consecutive female vocalist award. Shelton admits that he's had a few drinks since we last saw him on stage and he wasn't prepared for this award. Country music's most prolific (and hilarious) Tweeter admits he thought the award would go to Aldean or Bryan who have to smile and look like they aren't bummed about losing.
10:28: Kenny Chesney is performing the sultry "Come On Over," which, frankly, I'm surprised wasn't nominated for song of the year. He represents the old guard here. Think about it. He's one of the few performers (other than TIm McGraw and Faith Hill) whose career started in the early '90s.
10:32: In a meta-moment, the female stars of "Nashville" are presenting an award--and doing it very awkwardly at that. This category includes Kelly Clarkson, who is not a country artist, and Carrie Underwood, so "American Idol" is the real winner here. Want to know who the winner is? Scroll up to my prediction a few paragraphs back. Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert get to keep the titles of Queen and King of country for one more year. Lambert takes time to praise all her fellow nominees, including stabbing Martina McBride in a true-life "Nashville" moment by talking about listening to her when she was little, and gives a nice Girl Power speech.
10:40: I'm not really sure why there's a tribute to Willie Nelson tonight, but it's never a wrong time to pay homage to the Red Headed Stranger, so we're in. It starts with a tender, understated version of "Always On My Mind" by Lady Antebellum, which segues into a so-so take on "Crazy." Shelton, Urban and Mickey Raphael (who has played with Nelson since Moses) tear into "Whiskey River," which could be the hard-drinking Shelton's theme song. There's not a lot of chemistry between Shelton and Urban, but it works well. Faith Hill and Tim McGraw are duetting on "Good Hearted Woman." I don't know which one is supposed to be Willie and which one is supposed to be Waylon. The master takes the stage to show them how it's done singing "On The Road Again" for the 538,325 time. His guitar solo is beautiful. Ah, the first ever Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award is being presented to Willie Nelson. Now it all makes sense. He's 79. I hope he's still going strong for years more.
10:55: Friends, our marathon is almost over. The only award left is Entertainer of the Year. I predicted Jason Aldean would win, but the way the evening is going, it could be Blake Shelton. Or maybe Little Big Town will win as a write-in candidate.
10:57: The awkward attempts to tie in with ABC shows continues as Reba and Tim Allen present entertainer of the year to... even he looks shocked... Blake Shelton. He gives a very sweet, lovely hug to his good buddy Reba, who's tearing up...maybe because she remembers when she used to be up for this award. "What is this? I don't even know!... I love country music more than anybody in this room."
11 p.m.: Some immediate post-show thoughts. The big losers are Jason Aldean and Taylor Swift. But here's the thing about Swift. Country music is not going to turn its back on her...not after the reception "Red" has gotten. Early prediction? "Red" is up for country album of the year next year even though it's only about .05% country. Aldean could follow Toby Keith, who hates the CMAs (even though he won best video this year) out the door and feel they don't recognize his artistry.
The show was solid, greatly enhanced by strong acceptance speeches by Shelton/Lambert (together and separately) and Little Big Town. Paisley and Underwood, who largely got out of the way after their opening scene, remain a strong partnership. There were no truly stand out performances and no horror shows, but if I have to give a best, it goes to Underwood for "Blown Away."
What did you think of the CMA Awards? Did the voters get it right?