For only the second time in his career, Keith Urban walked away from the Country Music Association Awards cradling the most notable award - entertainer of the year.
The gracious musician, who earlier in the show blasted through his sexy funk jam, “Never Comin’ Down,” reacted with genuine shock, likely assuming that the night’s other major winner, Chris Stapleton, would prevail.
Urban hugged wife Nicole Kidman tightly and wiped tears from his eyes before bounding onstage.
“I wish my dad was alive to see this, but I think he’s watching over me tonight,” he said. “God bless country music.”
Urban reiterated backstage after the show that he harbored no expectations of winning.
“Someone said, ‘Did you do any campaigning?’ and I said, ‘We just played every night.’”
The 52nd annual awards otherwise unspooled with comforting consistency.
Hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley’s easy chemistry was evidenced in jokes that ranged from cute to corny, Stapleton continued his reign as the shaggy savior of soulful country and Kacey Musgraves represented for the women with an album of the year win for her excellent “Golden Hour.”
But for the second year in a row, the awards show opened with a dedication to country music fans killed while enjoying their pastime.
In 2017, it was the victims of the Route 91 Harvest music festival massacre in Las Vegas.
On Wednesday, a solemn Garth Brooks stood alone on stage to offer comforting words and a moment of silence for the 12 people gunned down at the Borderline bar and music venue in California last week.
The tragedy hung in the air during the three-hour show, which aired live from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Soft-spoken male vocalist of the year winner Stapleton noted while picking up a second award for “Broken Halos” (song of the year, single of the year), that it was written “about people who have gone on long before their time. I want to be thinking about the people in California right now.”
Midway through the telecast, Paisley and Underwood also acknowledged the firefighters battling the California blazes.
But the show adeptly balanced tragic and triumph with numerous inspiring performances.
Underwood’s potent rendition of her ballad of hopefulness, “Love Wins,” felt particularly poignant as she delivered it with a choir surrounding her onstage. She later scored her fifth female vocalist of the year win.
Backstage, the pregnant Underwood - she revealed during the show that it’s another boy - welled up while talking about her life.
“I’m honored to hold so many incredible titles - mom is definitely one of them,” she said tearfully. “Hopefully I can be an inspiration to my children and to other moms out there. We got this.”
Luke Bryan tagged a cadre of newish-comers for his Georgia-pines saluting “What Makes You Country” (Cole Swindell, a Bronwood native, and Lindsey Ell, a protégé of Sugarland’s Kristian Bush, were among those sharing the stage).
Brooks took the guy-and-a-guitar approach to debut a tender ballad, “Stronger Than Me,” as a surprise to wife Trisha Yearwood, who was seated a few feet in front of him.
“I didn’t cry, so I was happy about that,” a black-hatted Brooks said backstage, and then added with a smile. “She lost the bet, man.”
The triple play from Stapleton, Maren Morris and Mavis Staples unfurled as fiercely as expected, with the trio trading lyrics on Stapleton’s “Friendship” and the twosome wisely stepping back to allow Staples to improvise and roar during the Staple Singers classic, “I’ll Take You There.”
Musgraves, who noted during her acceptance speech that the date marked the 10-year anniversary of her move to Nashville, captivated with her ethereal “Slow Burn.”
“The best things in life are a slow burn, what you enjoy the journey of. It’s about enjoying the ride along the way … It’s one of my most autobiographical songs. It’s very personal to me,” Musgraves said backstage.
As with most awards shows, the actual winners become secondary to the performances, but there were several notables.
New artist of the year winner Luke Combs choked up while receiving his award (“God, I love country music, man.”), while Old Dominion also celebrated their first CMA, for vocal group of the year.
Brothers Osborne maintained their hold on the vocal duo of the year category, winning for the third time.
“I don’t know why we keep winning this. If this was Florida, there’d definitely be a recount,” said John Osborne to much laughter. He then added, “Work hard, be diligent, be good to people.”
The CMA awards are voted on by the 7,300 members of the Country Music Association.
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