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2012 CMA Awards best and worst highlights

2012 CMA Awards best and worst highlights © AP 2012 CMA Awards best and worst highlights

By Ken Barnes
Special to MSN Music

As the 46th Country Music Association Awards telecast wound its way through three hours of performances -- occasionally interrupted by awards -- on Thursday, you couldn't help but think you were witnessing a changing of the guard.

The performances and the awards reflected a new crowd of upstart rising stars, whose music is steeped in rock and pop to a greater degree than ever before. It made for highly entertaining viewing and a lot more bests than worsts.


New blood in performances: It's hard to say if it was a conscious CMA decision, but the abundant live performances seemed stacked with the creative core of Nashville's newer stars, mostly doing some of their best songs. The Band Perry, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, the Eli Young Band, the Zac Brown Band, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and country's crossover queen Taylor Swift all excelled. Solid performances by more seasoned stars such as Brad Paisley and Keith Urban also contributed to as strong a night of televised live music as you could ask for.

New blood in awards: Blake Shelton had won three CMA awards before Thursday night. He matched that number, riding his recent string of hits and exposure on "The Voice" to wins in the Song, Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year categories. It was his first time hitting the big entertainer jackpot. Sweetening the pot were the two victories for Shelton's wife, Miranda Lambert, who shared the song award with her husband and won Female Vocalist. (Her "Fastest Girl in Town" was also the most ferocious performance on a night with no shortage of them.)

Hunter Hayes, who's even younger than Taylor Swift (by a year, at 21), was named New Artist of the Year. Thompson Square interrupted Sugarland's five-year run as top duo, while Little Big Town knocked off three-time Vocal Group of the Year winner Lady Antebellum. All signs of positive change.

Full Nelson tribute: It wasn't all new country. Along with a brief but touching nod in song to new Country Hall of Fame inductee Connie Smith from hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, country's gray eminence Willie Nelson was given a lifetime achievement award and a musical salute featuring Lady Antebellum, Shelton and Urban, plus a duet by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill and, naturally, Willie himself singing "On the Road Again" again. It warmed the heart.

Hosts hit their stride: Paisley and Underwood seemed more at ease than ever, and their growing rapport bolstered the comedy bits, which ranged from mirthful (a Maroon 5 parody called "Moves Like Haggard," interspersed with a "Gangnam Style" workout) to pointed (several jests aimed squarely at Swift) to blue (many "motorboating" references derived from Little Big Town's "Pontoon" hit) to flat (an attempt to induce labor on a very pregnant Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland that induced few laughs). Underwood gets better every year and Paisley is a more-than-worthy successor to Vince Gill in the ready-wit category.

Before moving along to a couple of rather half-hearted worsts -- it was a good show, remember -- special mention should be made of what must be called a simultaneous Best/Worst event of the night. Underwood delivered a powerful rendition of her brilliant country-turbopop hit, "Blown Away," which was terrific, except that in light of recent meteorological catastrophes, it might not have been ideally timed.


Unplanned obsolescence?: With all the rising stars and their dynamic music, performances by the likes of McGraw, Hill and Kenny Chesney seemed a little past their sell-by date. (Although Chesney's "Come Over" is one of his stronger recent numbers.) And, although Toby Keith won just his third award in 27 tries, he didn't even get to claim it on TV. (He won for video, one of three categories not televised.)

Questionable award choices: Not a lot to quibble with in the Association's votes this year, which is a minor miracle. Little Big Town's "Pontoon" is a harmless novelty that was inferior to its four competitors, but it's hard to begrudge them their first win (or their second, for vocal group). You could argue that Thompson Square was a more deserving new-artist winner than Hayes, but T-Square made up for it by going directly to best vocal duo without passing new artist. And no one would expect the Willie Nelson/Snoop Dogg-and-many-others collaboration, "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," to actually win, but one can dream...

Veteran music journalist and editor Ken Barnes has covered popular music for USA Today, Radio & Records and other national consumer and industry publications.

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