BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
NASHVILLE – When Country Music Association Awards organizers promised to go big for their 50th anniversary, they weren’t kidding.
Social media was abuzz Wednesday afternoon at the news of Beyonce’s performance, but an almost bigger surprise was that she collaborated with the Dixie Chicks – country music pariahs for more than a decade – on a striking soul-country-funk rework of her song, “Daddy Lessons.”
Beyonce, clad in a sheer white beaded gown in contrast with the Dixie Chicks’ all-black ensemble, appeared to have a blast outside of her element, grinning and blowing kisses as she stalked the stage.
Then came the return of Taylor Swift to a stage dedicated to country music, on hand to present the Entertainer of the Year Award.
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True to its intention to honor its history, the three-hour-plus CMA Awards broadcast opened with the kind of dizzying all-star performance reserved for, well, milestone award shows.
Vince Gill and Merle Haggard’s son, Ben, led the parade with a snippet of Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” followed by a string of country greats including Charlie Daniels (“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), Reba McEntire (“Fancy”), Charley Pride and Brad Paisley (“Kiss An Angel Good Morning”) and Carrie Underwood paying tribute to Tammy Wynette with a walloping note on “Stand By Your Man.”
To cement the performance, Randy Travis, who suffered a stroke three years ago, appeared as the collection of artists sang his 1987 signature song, “Forever and Ever, Amen,” and added the final, emotional lyric.
Entertainer of the Year winner Garth Brooks called the lineup, "The greatest opening I've ever seen. And then here comes Randy Travis singing 'Amen'...forget it. I lost it."
Perennial hosts Underwood - who won Female Vocalist of the Year for the fourth time -- and Paisley struck an even more playful tone than usual for their ninth time driving the show, opening with jokes that targeted the election.
“We’re so freaking sick of politics, we don’t even care who wins,” went one of their clever ditties.
Paisley continued the theme by engaging in the Donald Trump moves of interrupting Underwood, lurking behind her and joking that the award show was rigged, “bigly.”
As usual, the nominee list was stocked with Georgia artists and Valdosta native Thomas Rhett represented early with a win for “Die a Happy Man,” which he said was inspired by his wife, Lauren.
Backstage, the lightly scruffy Rhett said he and Lauren will turn an upcoming trip to Africa into a celebratory vacation.
While many expected Florida Georgia Line a cinch to win Vocal Duo of the Year, the award instead went to Brothers Osborne, whose John Osborne reacted with genuine shock.
Backstage TJ Osborne said he was going to take his trophy on the road, while his brother joked he was going to tie it to the bottom of his bolo tie.
“It was really, really out of left field,” TJ said backstage of winning. “We were sitting in front of Florida Georgia Line (and expected them to win). We felt like it was ‘Zoolander’ - did they really say our name?”
The Brothers Osborne play Atlanta's Variety Playhouse on Nov. 17.
Upstart singer-songwriter Maren Morris was also a sweetly tearful mess as she accepted her New Artist of the Year trophy.
“Last year I sat across the street at a bar and watched this show,” the “My Church” singer said, wiping her face. “I never thought as a songwriter I’d be standing here today.”
Little Big Town – whose Karen Fairchild is a graduate of Lassiter High School in Marietta and Kimberly Schlapman a native of Cornelia-- nabbed Vocal Group of the Year for the third time.
Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena overflowed with notable performances -- from Tim McGraw’s understated “Humble & Kind” to an impressive series of duets between Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood (“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” and “Golden Ring” among them) to Alan Jackson and George Strait putting their veteran pipes to Jackson’s wistful “Remember When.”
Last year’s breakout CMA star, Chris Stapleton, delivered another powerful, throaty performance, as he duetted with Dwight Yoakam on “Seven Spanish Angels,” a hit for Willie Nelson and Ray Charles in 1984. Stapleton also won his second consecutive Male Vocalist of the Year award.
Kenny Chesney earned the third-ever Pinnacle Award for his global prominence in country music, and Dolly Parton was feted with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.
"Dolly helped build Nashville," said the singer's longtime pal Lily Tomlin in her introduction of Parton.
To celebrate Parton's legacy, McEntire belted "9 to 5" (after a very funny minor flub), Kacey Musgraves crooned "Here You Come Again" and the pair, joined by Underwood, Martina McBride and Jennifer Nettles, tackled "I Will Always Love You."
Backstage, Parton said, "I hope they don’t think because they gave me a Lifetime Achievement Award that I was done, cause that ain’t gonna happen."