Top 10 CMA Highlights: King George, Princess Taylor, and Dave Grohl (!) Beat the Band

Chris Willman

Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift, Luke Bryan, and Jason Aldean were showing up for a coronation, and they just didn't know it. King George — as in Strait — was reinstalled on the throne as the CMA Awards’ Entertainer of the Year Wednesday night, and his subjects had to divide the spoils.

But spoils there were, in one of the better paced and least painful music awards shows in recent memory. The night’s 10 most memorable moments:

Brad and Carrie: When you’re looking at them, you’re looking at…comedy. Paisley is a natural deadpan comedian, and Underwood has turned into a surprisingly good comedienne over the six years they've co-hosted. Thanks to some deft writing that played to their strengths, they turned in an opening monologue, or duo-logue, we actually didn't want to end. In a bit about county feuds real and imagined, they got actual feuders Zac Brown and Luke Bryan to hug, then concocted fantasy feuds that included Darius Rucker and black-faced trick-or-tweeter Julianne Hough. We were dreading the inevitable twerking joke, but the punchlines — "Well, have you ever been to a Luke Bryan concert?" "I thought those were mini-seizures" — landed a hilarious punch. It’s high time for a Paisley/Underwood co-headlining tour…no music, just standup.

Eric Church: When you’re looking at him, you’re looking at…prog-metal? Church’s brand new single, "The Outsiders," is a love-it-or-hate-it prospect that has country fans about equally split. We were just hoping Church's combination of metal riffage and Primus-like bass solos wouldn’t kill George Strait before he got to finish his farewell tour. Whatever you thought of it…bonus points for finally losing the ballcap.

Taylor Swift: When you’re looking at her, you're looking at…country! Just when traditional country fans want to claim that Swift has gone over completely to the dark (pop) side, she surprises everyone. A few years ago it was with “Mean,” the country-est song to hit the chart in about forever. This year, it was with a delectable CMAs performance of "Red" that transformed the heavily rocking recorded arrangement into a real ballad of deep country longing, with an all-star, all-acoustic combo made up of Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, and Eric Darken. The middle verse became a call-and-response between Taylor, Vince, and Allison. Her next touring band? Well, we can dream.

Swift gets swift justice, in the form of a career achievement award. So what did take the CMA so long, in waiting till she was 23 to give her the Pinnacle, an all-time honor previously bestowed only upon Garth Brooks? This could have seemed like overkill — and a bald excuse to ensure Swift would get up onstage to accept something, since she was shut out of winning any CMAs last year after getting Entertainer of the Year in 2011. But it actually turned into a terribly sweet moment, as the young star faced a lineup of the superstars she opened for when she was a teenager…and spontaneously managed to find something lovely to say about each of these mentors.

Kacey Musgraves gets progressive, and censored. The wider world still doesn’t know what the Best New Artist winner was suggesting that people do — "or don't" — since ABC cut her mic each time the chorus of “Follow Your Arrow” came around to the “roll up a joint" line. But the fact that a blatantly pro-gay song made it onto the CMAs marks some sort of milestone, in a show that usually doesn’t go out of its way to poke at the conservative constituencies within country. When Musgraves later beat Florida Georgia Line for the newcomer honor, it was the evening’s biggest upset, and a victory for both singer-songwriters and women in country, even if you'd think those battles were lost if you turn on the radio.

George Strait and Alan Jackson salute the other King George. The late George Jones got his due as country's two greatest living traditionalists dueted on "He Stopped Loving Her Today." If only the Possum had merited a full medley, the way that Kenny Rogers did.

Puff Daddy fulfills a lifelong dream. “It’s always been a dream of mine to come to the CMAs,” said Puffy, co-presenting with Kellie Pickler. Really? Always? This pairing did at least allow for some great alliteration when Little Big Town won the Best Vocal Group award and Kimberly Schlatman blurted, “We just got an award from Puffy and Pickle!”

Luke Bryan gets sensitive. Bryan is known as a different kind of king than George Jones. He’s one of the kings of “bro-country,” as the current wave of party-oriented country-rock is derogatorily referred to. So when folks heard that his new single was called “Drink a Beer,” it was easy to assume he was going for the lowest common denominator. But it’s actually a terrific song about missing the dead, dedicated to his late brother and sister. It's a tune even Zac Brown could love, and it showed that the CMAs can allow for a quiet moment or two, too.

The Zac Brown Band gets jammy, with Dave Grohl. Brown debuted a new number, “Day for the Dead," with Dave Grohl on drums. And there is no objective way of knowing how good a song it really is, because everything sounds great with Dave Grohl on drums. Even Taylor Swift’s acoustic segment, as good as it was, would have sounded better with Dave Grohl pounding the drums. There should be a law that every band should have Dave Grohl on drums. Somehow, we suspect he has the energy to carry the load.

The Strait win: Anything else would have resulted in insurrection. When we polled artists about who they thought would win, most of them named Bryan, with Strait coming in second. But this is an industry-voted show, not fan-voted. And it turns out that industry voters were not about to let the hip-waggling upstart win over a legend who hasn't been nominated since 2006, hasn't won since 1990, and who may have been getting his last and best chance in conjunction with his farewell tour. It happened exactly as it should have, as every loser in the category correctly said backstage. No need to get unwound about the result, after all.