Out of the crop of country-music related awards shows, the CMT Awards traditionally holds the honor of being the “edgy” card in the deck: Past years have seen everything from Taylor Swift’s first rap collaboration (with T-Pain), to guest appearances from (then-Senator) Barack Obama, to recreations of Jay-Z and Solange Knowles’s infamous 2014 elevator fight. It has become something of a badge to this broadcast to see how much wide-based pop culture it can mix into a country palette – making it all the more surprising when something genuinely country does emerge.
That did happen at the 2016 CMT Awards, and in an unexpectedly sweet way. Blake Shelton, Nashville’s bawdiest jokester (and other half to distinctly un-country gal Gwen Stefani), brought a dose of pure retro fun when he took the stage with classic hitmakers the Oak Ridge Boys. OK, yes, they did open up with Shelton’s nudge-wink “Doing It to Country Songs” — but segued nicely into the Boys’ best-loved hit, 1981’s “Elvira.”
Shelton knows how to work an audience, and true to form in this case, he played the part perfectly, stepping back to let the Boys work their decades-old magic. He added just a bit of a punctuation note during everyone’s favorite part of the song — doing a little posturing as bass singer Richard Sterban boomed out his impossibly deep “oom-pa-pa-oom-pa-pa-mow-mow.”
What was perhaps nicest about the collaboration is the fact that although Shelton is, without question, a Hollywood powerhouse, he still has the ability to seamlessly morph back at will into the mullet-wearing Oklahoma boy who broke out a full 15 years ago with no Voice (or No Doubt) in his longview. It’s moments like these that prove to be the truly rebellious ones in a show full of attempts to manufacture shock and awe. The true shock? Country — true country — is and always will be cool in its own undiluted way.
Standing out in stark contrast to Shelton’s pure-country onstage pairing were the rest of the show’s collaborations, which – true to CMT’s usual form – blended a variety of genres, to varying degrees of success. Rising star Cam’s mashup with pop powerhouses Fifth Harmony proved that good vocal power is, pretty much, all that is needed to move seamlessly from one style to another. Dierks Bentley and Elle King also provided a performance (of Bentley’s unexpectedly nerve-hitting new single, “Different for Girls”) that proved the correct chops are a seamless ticket into a different musical arena.
However, not all of the collaborations worked as well: In particular, Pitbull’s joining with Cassadee Pope and Leona Lewis early on in the show had nary a note of Dixie about it, relying mainly on a brigade of booty-shaking backup dancers. And Little Big Town’s much-hyped pairing with Pharrell – he worked with the band on latest project Wanderlust – felt far less like the exciting event it was meant to be and more like filler to pad out the last bits of airtime. (Little Big Town themselves have noted that their latest endeavor is not a country project, so there’s that to consider as well.)
The 2016 CMT Awards were aired live June 8 from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Shelton took home an award for Social Superstar from the all-fan-voted show.