The hosts of the 44th annual CMA Awards, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, didn't just stick behind a podium and toss good-natured digs at their fellow country music luminaries. Instead, the superstars kicked off the show with a high-octane performance of Underwood's "Songs Like This," they showed why they were both up for CMA awards, in addition to being tapped to MC the festivities.
Sporting a sparkly silver and black jacket with black cropped pants, Underwood strutted around the stage with a take-charge attitude as she belted the lyrics, which blast a no-good, ex-flame, until she encountered her co-host, Brad Paisley, who fired off a searing guitar solo. Then an appearance by hitmaker and CMA nominee Keith Urban, who plucked away on his banjo, kicked up the star power.
Following Underwood's super-quick change into a silver minidress, the hosts headed back onstage, and set the tone of the evening with some light-hearted banter, taking shots at the BP oil spill and Tiger Woods, and showing Taylor Swift love for her chart-busting, first-week Speak Now haul. The duo also gave a shout-out to country newbie Gwyneth Paltrow, who was readying to make her live, singing debut later in the evening. Referencing her well-known music connection via her rock-star husband Chris Martin, Paisley joked, "Can you get me two Coldplay tickets?" Underwood followed up with, "Can you make it four?" Paisley also name-checked pop phenomenon Lady Gaga, pretending to confuse Lady Antebellum — who later won two awards, including Vocal Group of the Year — for the quirky superstar, strumming twangy versions of "Paparazzi" and "Alejandro," and asking, "Are you guys gonna wear your meat suits tonight?"
No one showed up in fleshy fashions, but the night was packed with plenty of A-list performances. Chart-topping trio Rascal Flatts performed their let's-get-married jam "Why Wait" under a "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign, shouting-out the renowned quickie-marriage city.
Blake Shelton performed his dance floor-packing number "All About Tonight" on a platform in the middle of the arena surrounded by fans. A sea of hands shot in the air when the crooner sang "I'm gonna do my best to dance with every girl in this bar."
After "The House That Built Me" won Song of the year, Shelton's fiance and nine-time nominee, Miranda Lambert, hit the stage with "That's the Way That the World Goes 'Round." Bursts of fog rolled downstage as the chorus kicked in, and the country darling grooved in a silvery, fringe skirt that matched the sable tassels of her set piece. In one of the show's many moments of levity, when the camera cut to Shelton, he playfully mimed that his soon-to-be-wife was crazy.
Despite the jokes, the night turned out to be big for both Lambert and Shelton who each picked up multiple awards. Lambert, who was also celebrating her birthday, led the wins with three trophies, including Female Vocalist of the year and Album of the year, while Shelton picked up two, including Male Vocalist of the year.
Country great George Strait, who has won the most CMA awards ever, took the stage for "The Breath You Take," and gave an earnest performance in a classic black suit under blue spotlights.
After accepting the award for New Artist of the year from last year's victor Darius Rucker, Zac Brown Band took the stage for "As She's Walking Away." Playing in a set reminiscent of a vaudeville theater, the collective strummed along until country great Alan Jackson stepped from behind a burnt-orange curtain, eliciting screams from the crowd. The crooner manned vocal duties for the second verse and Jimmy De Martini followed up with a hearty violin solo.
Kenny Chesney played his football ode "The Boys of Fall" as scenes gridiron scenes, including images of a young Chesney on the field, played out on the monitor.
After an introduction from "Country Strong" actress Leighton Meester, Taylor Swift played "Back to December" on a sleek grand piano, backed by a string section in an elegant turn-of-the-century set.
Sugarland, who picked up the award for Vocal Duo of the year for the fourth year in a row, turned out a plucky rendition of "Stuck Like Glue" in a retro, carnival-themed set, with Jennifer Nettles trotting about in a tutu and sparkly tunic like a doll.
Country superstar Keith Urban returned to the stage, this time rocking his uptempo new single "Put You in a Song." Urban was followed by a performance from country icon Reba McEntire, who dispensed with the theatrics in favor of a straightforward rendition of "If I Were a Boy." Singing with no band onstage, donning a glittery black dress with her signature red hair flowing to her shoulders, the legendary vocalist's performance scored a standing ovation.
A few crossover artists hit the stage as well. "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson joined Jason Aldean for his song "Don't You Wanna Stay," from My Kinda Party. Sporting a brown jacket with generous fringe, Kid Rock launched his impassioned rendition of "Born Free" at the piano, and later ripped the mic, becoming one of the relative newcomers to country music to score a standing ovation.
Co-host Brad Paisley paid tribute to his music predecessors, flashing images of greats such as Tammy Wynette and Conway Twitty during his new song, "This is Country Music," while Dierks Bentley turned out a fiddle-heavy performance of "Up on the Ridge."
One of the biggest moments of the night went down when multiple generations of female singers turned out for an all-star tribute to music icon Loretta Lynn. Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek, who played Lynn in the 1980 movie "Coal Miner's Daughter," introduced the tribute, which included Lambert and Sheryl Crow and Lynn herself, who was welcomed with a standing ovation mid-song. After the performance, Lynn and Spacek presented Lambert with the award for Female Vocalist of the year, her third trophy of the night. The star became emotional when accepting the trophy from the country legend and thanked her for her pioneering efforts.
The much-anticipated CMA debut of Gwyneth Paltrow also ended in a standing ovation, as the Oscar-winner belted the bold, strong notes of the title song to her upcoming movie, "Country Strong."
Co-host Brad Paisley capped off the night, accepting the award for Entertainer of the Year, and despite being a CMA Awards veteran with over 50 previous nominations, got emotional when speaking about the devotion of the fans, who roared with support throughout his acceptance speech.
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