One thing is certain about the CMT Music Awards — the voters are kind of obsessed with Carrie Underwood.
The "American Idol" winner turned country music superstar is the most-awarded artist in the show's nearly two-decade history, and her reign continued Wednesday: She was presented with video of the year (the biggest prize of the night) for her powerful ballad "Cry Pretty." It's Underwood's seventh time triumphing in the category; she once won it four years in a row.
"None of us would be able to do any of what we do if it's not for you guys," Underwood, who also won best female video for "Love Wins," told the crowd of the fan-voted trophy. "You guys put us here, you guys keep us going, you guys let us live out our dreams. And I hope that we can give a fraction of that back to you every once in a while."
In case you missed the 2½-hour telecast, here are some of the best and worst moments.
The magical "Delta Dawn" collaboration.
Country music award shows always shine when producers invite veteran singers to perform iconic hits, and this one was no exception, as Tanya Tucker belted out the classic "Delta Dawn" with Brandi Carlile. In a nice touch, they invited a group of female powerhouse singers onstage with them: Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Deana Carter, Carly Pearce, Lauren Alaina and RaeLynn, who were clearly having a blast. Keith Urban also rocked out in the audience as he sang every word.
It's no coincidence that this performance happened after Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman (of Little Big Town, who hosted the show) pointedly addressed a hot-button issue in country music. "Here in Nashville, there's been a lot of talk about how underplayed female artists are on country radio," Schlapman said.
"Last week. there were only two female artists on the country airplay Top 20. Back in December, it was even worse, there were none," Fairchild said. "Here's my question, ladies in the house: What do we have to do to get some airplay around here?"
Kane Brown's social media tribute.
During acceptance speeches, most country singers first thank their labels, managers and of course, country radio. But Kane Brown, one of the first Nashville artists to get their big break on social media, gave a shout-out to his online followers as he picked up the trophy for male video of the year. "I started on Facebook and I gotta thank all my fans who have been behind me since Day One. I love you guys," he said.
Brown also had a tough act to follow as he helped kick off the show right after Little Big Town and Thomas Rhett's "Don't Threaten Me With a Good Time" - an electric opening collaboration we never knew we needed. Still, Brown held his own with an extremely high-energy performance of his own, on a special stage set up outside in downtown Nashville.
Ashley McBryde's speech.
It must be especially satisfying to win an award for a song about people who never thought you would make it. Indeed, Ashley McBryde had tears in her eyes as she thanked voters for her breakout video of the year trophy for "Girl Goin' Nowhere." McBryde said she didn't expect this particular video, filmed in front of a sold-out crowd at her favorite venue Marathon Music Works, to resonate the way it did. As an added bonus, she snagged a cup of beer from the audience as she walked to the stage. "I didn't have a drink," she explained, "So I took Luke Combs' drink."
Luke Bryan's "Knockin' Boots."
Maybe Luke Bryan got the memo that his ACM Awards performance of his latest single was kind of a snoozefest, so he really ramped up the energy for this one, with an elaborate setup and eight very enthusiastic backup dancers who put on quite a show behind him.
Kelsea Ballerini's new take on "Miss Me More."
For the second year in a row, Kelsea Ballerini offered an slowed-down acoustic version of her hit before the full band kicked in - and this method was especially effective for her fiery single "Miss Me More." Incidentally, the song looks poised to go No. 1 on country radio soon: If it does, Ballerini will be the first female artist in nearly 16 months to have a single hit the top of the charts. The last female artist to do so? Well, Ballerini, whose "Legends" went No. 1 in February 2018.
Maren Morris' latest album cut.
We'll give Maren Morris credit for her determination to perform a wide variety of songs on award shows, as most singers typically play their current single. As Morris' "Girl" rises on the charts, she went with album cut "Shade" during her time on the CMT stage. Then she joined Sheryl Crow - who says she's releasing her final album this year - for a duet of "Prove You Wrong."
Brett Young and Boyz II Men.
Yes, the mash-up of Young's "Here Tonight" and the supergroup's "Water Runs Dry" was a plug for the "CMT Crossroads" special that featured both acts. But that doesn't mean it wasn't great.
Zac Brown's speech.
Is everything OK with Zac Brown? The soulful lead singer of the Zac Brown Band thanked CMT and the group's fans at the beginning of his acceptance speech for group video of the year ("Someone I Used To Know"), but took a sudden swerve. "This award is for all of you, my band, all the outsiders that waded through everyone's doubt," he said. "For you young artists, have the courage to stand up against the machine, be yourself, work hard and one day you can stand up here and tell all the haters to (bleep sound) off."
Yikes. The line seemed to play well in the arena, but watching at home, it just sounded bitter. There's no question that he has received criticism for experimentation with non-country sounds (such as EDM), but that kind of comment is probably better suited for a concert full of Zac Brown Band fans ... and not necessarily in front of viewers on national television.
The "Old Town Road" reference without Lil Nas X.
The success of Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" is a sensitive subject in Nashville, especially for those who think the genre was unfairly criticized not considering it "country enough" as the track was pulled off the Billboard Hot Country chart. However, given that it has become a smash of epic proportions (the most popular song in the nation for nine consecutive weeks), it seems natural that a country award show would try to cause a viral moment by inviting Lil Nas X to perform the hit with his remix buddy Billy Ray Cyrus. Yet the young rapper was nowhere to be found at the CMT Awards, even though he's scheduled to be in Nashville on Thursday for a CMA Fest event.
Either way, it didn't stop Little Big Town's Jimi Westbrook from singing a few lines during the group's monologue, after joking it was one of the summer's "eternal questions": "Is 'Old Town Road' country or not?"
"We love it!" Fairchild and Schlapman chimed in.
The running gag with Midland and beer.
We don't envy award show producers who have to come up with bits during the show . . . yet the running gag where Midland kept bringing in beer and playing beer pong in the audience got old quickly. We get it! They're quirky! And they like to drink!