Here's a look at the memorable moments at the Country Music Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both came in for some gentle jokes. Co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood pulled out a duffel bag they called a "basket of deplorables," which Clinton used to describe some Trump supporters. (Inside was "camo and ammo"). Paisley, meanwhile, channeled Trump when he announced: "This show is rigged!" He said he'd accept the results — only if he won, though he wasn't nominated for any awards — and referred to his co-host as a "nasty woman" and "crooked Carrie." Later, he jokingly called Jason Aldean and Brooks & Dunn "bad hombres." None of the presenters or performers got in on the act, avoiding any politics just days before the election.
YES, SHE CAME
Pop superstar Beyonce was rumored to be showing up at country music's big night, which sounded like an unusual pairing that sent social media into a frenzy. Would she do a duet or a solo? Just present? When she did show up, it was in a respectful, boisterous and collaborative performance with the Dixie Chicks of her country-flavored song "Daddy Lessons" from her new album "Lemonade." Beyonce, who apparently needed no introduction, looked gorgeous in strands of pearls and a hip-hugging Zuhair Murad gown, swaying happily to the sound of a sax solo, boogying while others sang and clapping along. The Dixie Chicks had been covering her song on the road so it made sense to invite her. For her part, Beyonce may have made some new red-state fans. It was a win-win.
HONORING THE TWANG
The CMAs elegantly straddled the line between nostalgia and moldy oldies by making elegant nods to past idols and educating new country fans to artists who paved the way like Loretta Lynn, Vince Gill, George Strait and Barbara Mandrell. Old clips from previous shows honored those who have died. And when married couple Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood performed an epic medley of country standards, it ended with a lip lock that seemed rooted in genuine love and respect. All night, it was fun to see so many artists in the audience singing along to classics being performed onstage like "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue."
SONGS, SONGS, SONGS
Full credit goes to organizers for front-loading a ton of live music right from the top. A portion of a dozen songs — from Alabama's "Mountain Music" to Reba's "Fancy" and Carrie Underwood's "Stand By Your Man" — took a blistering 10 minutes and gracefully ended with the microphone in the hands of Randy Travis, who has been rehabilitating after a 2013 stroke, and he joined in on the last lines of the song. When Thomas Rhett won single of the year award, he said the sequence left him in tears. The rest of the night was virtually wall-to-wall music, as it should have been.
The CMAs may have been celebrating their golden anniversary but the awards took place in the national shadow of an even more special event — Game 7 of the World Series, pitting the Cleveland Indians, who last won the Fall Classic in 1948, and the Chicago Cubs, who famously hadn't won the World Series since 1908. The show was more than half over by the time presenter ESPN broadcaster Kirk Herbstreit made the first on-air reference to the other big show — informing the audience that the Cubs were up in the fifth inning. Later, Vince Gill said the Cubs were up 6-3. The CMAs ended with the game in the eighth inning, meaning a whole lot of country stars probably pulled out their phones as soon as Garth Brooks won the top award and the hosts waved goodbye.
The CMAs pulled out all the stops to make their birthday look elegant. Sometimes, it worked well, as when Tim McGraw's "Humble and Kind" was accompanied by a montage of diverse American faces and when Kelsea Ballerini performed her hit "Peter Pan" in front of two dancers who did an elegant ballet combining muscular aerial work on wires. But sometimes it crashed, as when Little Big Town performed "Better Man" in what looked like a hay field with a wind machine on full force. It was poorly lit, the well-dressed group seemed uncomfortable and it looked like they were performing in truck exhaust.
No matter who was going to be the big winner, it was always going to be Dolly Parton's night and the CMAs did this beloved genre-breaking performer proud. Some of the most skillful and genuine female singers in the genre — Reba, Jennifer Nettles, Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride and Kacey Musgraves — stood facing the country icon and sang some of her hits like "9 to 5" and "Jolene" in a stunning serenade. Then she was presented with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award and quipped, "This is an absolute high for me." The fact that her acceptance speech was rushed was the only strange note. Chris Stapleton, who won the following award, like a gentleman, offered to give her some of his time.