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The 2016 CMA Awards — the 50th edition of the awards show — drew the best of the best: every living entertainer of the year winner was present, alongside all today’s hottest up-and-coming artists. The awards themselves were special, but, particularly given the star-studded crowd, the performances were history-making.
From Chris Stapleton to Alan Jackson to Beyoncé, here are the evening’s performances in order of how ready they made us to hit the after-hoedown.
19. Luke Bryan
Just days after the song hit no. 1 on Country Airplay, Luke Bryan performed his sexy single “Move” (sporting fittingly tight pants) in front of an architectural, illuminated set.
18. Brad Paisley
Host Brad Paisley capped off the night with an acoustic performance of his newest single “Today” in front of a history-laden CMAs montage.’
17. Tim McGraw
Backed only by a montage of different anonymous figures of all nationalities, Tim McGraw performed “Humble and Kind,” his 2016 breakthrough single.
16. Thomas Rhett
After winning Single of the Year for “Die A Happy Man,” Thomas Rhett performed the six-week Country Airplay no. 1 for the crowd in a blacked-out Bridgestone Arena — illuminated almost exclusively by cell phones.
15. Dierks Bentley Elle King
Dierks Bentley was joined by the bluesy Elle King to perform their hit duet “Different for Girls” — King, sporting a marching band-inspired ensemble complete with fringe, went full country with banjo in hand. Dimmed lights meant cellphones in the air, completing the ballad.
14. Florida Georgia Line Tim McGraw
Florida Georgia Line, who had a pretty quiet evening, were joined by Tim McGraw to perform the trio’s single “May We All” — it was mellow, but solid.
13. Brooks Dunn and Jason Aldean
Brooks Dunn were joined by Jason Aldean to perform their 1991 debut single “Brand New Man” — the trio offered a little old-school rock and bravado to the proceedings, earning a standing ovation.
12. Little Big Town
Little Big Town showed off their new single (penned by none other than Taylor Swift) “Better Man” in the midst of a faux-field: not only was the backdrop big sky country, the stage itself was covered in (presumably faux) grasses and shrubs. The group went full power ballad, showcasing their trademark harmonies (and a little bit of banjo).
11. Keith Urban
Nominated for three CMA awards, Keith Urban went home empty-handed — but not before sharing a predictably sweet performance of his current single “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” The string section and spare, blue-lit set said Kanye, but the romantic track was all Keith, who sang to Nicole Kidman, seated in the front row.
10. Carrie Underwood
Backed by an appropriately post-apocalyptic setting (think red lights and scaffolding) along with an all-woman band, Carrie Underwood performed her single “Dirty Laundry” in a fittingly bedraggled outfit. Underwood went rock with this rendition, and it worked: guitar solo, pyrotechnics and all.
9. Kelsea Ballerini
Kelsea Ballerini performed her latest radio chart-topper “Peter Pan” in front of a fitting night-sky background, complete with full moon and “clouds” (copious smoke machines). A couple did an interpretive dance routine in the background, including aerials — including the man flying away at the song’s conclusion. Ballerini, dressed in a dusty rose gown (made all the more impressive by the wind machine), offered a flawless rendition of the brutally honest track.
8. Alan Jackson George Strait
Alan Jackson and George Strait joined forces for an extraordinary performance of Jackson’s 2003 single “Remember When” — straight-forward, classic and a great reminder of the kind of songwriting that country music is all about.
7. Miranda Lambert
Miranda Lambert brought down the house with a rendition of her single “Vice,” giving it an old-school twist with a classic red velvet curtain and full band (complete with organ!). Sporting a suit and acoustic guitar, Lambert offered a powerful, evocative performance.
6. Chris Stapleton Dwight Yoakam
Powerhouses Chris Stapleton and Dwight Yoakam (alongside Stapleton’s wife Morgane) shared a beautiful tribute to Ray Charles and Willie Nelson with a performance of the latter pair’s 1984 single “Seven Spanish Angels.” Complete with mariachi-ready brass, the duo did justice to Charles and Nelson — a rare feat.
5. Garth Brooks Trisha Yearwood
The legends got their due during Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood’s medley of classic duets — from “Jackson” to “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” to “Golden Ring,” the seemingly ageless couple brought down the house with hit after hit, wrapping things up (naturally) with a smooch.
4. Maren Morris
One of the evening’s standouts (and the best new artist winner) Maren Morris brought along the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the McCrary Sisters to perform her hit “My Church.” Turning the stage into a dimly lit (and enviably hip) club complete with about a thousand bare Edison bulbs, Maren slayed her performance, stretching out vocally to show off her range (and soul) on the irresistible track.
3. Superstar Opening Medley
The show got off to a star-studded start with a medley of country hits spanning the full 50 years of the Country Music Association — from Charley Pride coming onstage to share his hit “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” to Reba McEntire performing “Fancy” to Alan Jackson offering “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” the production was seamless and nostalgic without ever getting bogged down. The two most touching moments? Fittingly, the beginning — a tribute to Merle Haggard with Vince Gill and Merle’s son Ben performing “Mama Tried” — and the end, a celebration of Randy Travis featuring the legend alongside the cast of the whole medley singing “Forever and Ever, Amen.”
2. Dolly Parton Tribute
Dolly Parton inspired a heartfelt, all-star tribute for her Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award: Jennifer Nettles and Pentatonix for “Jolene,” an emotional Reba McEntire for “9 to 5,” Kacey Musgraves for “Here You Come Again,” and finally Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride and everyone else who performed for “I Will Always Love You” — even Dolly herself was crying.
1. Beyonce Dixie Chicks
The last-minute announcement that Beyonce would be performing at the CMA Awards sent the internet into a tizzy — but, it being Queen B, the hype was more than warranted. Looking resplendent and surrounded by the long-exiled Dixie Chicks, the superstar performed Lemonade album cut “Daddy Lessons” with a full band (brass, a dancing bari sax player, and strings included) and distinctly Houston-meets-New Orleans swagger. She was smiling, dancing — loose but still somehow polished. It was impossible to look away from, but more importantly, a reminder that country music’s roots look little like its present.