The Country Music Association Awards kicked off with a look back -- appropriate enough for the organization’s 50th awards ceremony -- with highlights of acceptance speeches from over the year.
Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks, Darius Rucker and more celebrated before the real show kicked off, leading into a star-studded musical medley tribute to Merle Haggard, Slim Pickens, Tammy Wynette and more featuring co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood and more.
The assembled country music luminaries were on their feet in no time to celebrate their heroes and predecessors, including the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Charlie Daniels, who fiddled his way through “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” alongside Paisley, while Randy Travis brought the mega-medley to a close.
Rumors that Beyonce would be opening the show turned out to be false, but nobody seemed to mind.
Underwood and Paisley started their monologue by musically addressing the 2016 presidential election. “We’re so fricking sick of politics, we don’t even care who wins,” they sang. “This election is taking forever and ever. Make it end.”
But that wasn’t the last of the political statements Wednesday night. Later in the monologue, Paisley imitated Donald Trump’s debate performance, stalking around behind Underwood and interrupting her with declarations of “Wrong!”
“What I think doesn’t matter because this show is rigged, bigly,” he added, insisting he would only accept the results of the awards show if he wins -- even though he wasn’t nominated.
They then brought out a special “basket of deplorables” for nominees and attendees, including beer goggles, a Dolly Parton-inspired “bra of many colors” and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill Barbie dolls.
The U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastic team handed out the first award of the night -- Single of the Year -- which went to Thomas Rhett for “Die a Happy Man,” who thanked his wife for the inspiration.
Kelsea Ballerini then took the stage for a dancer-assisted performance of her hit “Peter Pan.”
The next award, Song of the Year, went to songwriter Laurie McKenna for Tim McGraw’s hit “Humble and Kind.” McGraw escorted a tearful McKenna to the stage for her speech. “I have a job in this town because of this guy’s wife, Faith Hill,” she said.
Jason Aldeen then took the stage with Brooks and Dunn to perform the country duo’s first hit, “Brand New Man.”
Then it was time for Dierks Bentley and Elle King to treat the crowd to “Different for Girls,” their track that had picked up an award earlier in the night, followed by Maren Morris with a rousing rendition of “My Church.”
Morris was back on stage in no time when she won New Artist of the Year, presented by West Virginia native Jennifer Garner -- but not before showing off a photo of Paisley winning the same award years ago.
“I can’t win this award right after performing, I’m going to fall apart,” she said. “Last year I sat across the street at a bar and watched this show. I never thought as a songwriter I’d be standing here today.”
Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood then took the stage for a tribute to Johnny and Roseanne Cash, Roger Miller, Crystal Gale and others in another mega-medley.
Of course, Underwood wasn’t just there to co-host. She also took the stage for a scorching, rock-inflected performance of “Dirty Laundry,” featuring an all-female band.
Faith Hill then took the stage to present the evening’s next award, Album of the Year, noting that 40 years ago was the first time a woman had won the award. Neither of the two women nominated this year won, though, as the trophy went to Eric Church for “Mr. Misunderstood,” his second release to win the honor.
“I’m not sure what’s better, winning this award or Faith Hill fixing my tie,” Church said.
Nominees Little Big Town then took the stage, turning the stage into a grassy plain for “Better Man.” Miranda Lambert followed that up with a soulful rendition of “Vice.”
Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey surprised the crowd by taking the stage -- though he apparently didn’t get the formal attire memo -- to talk about thankfulness and gratitude, and to introduce a performance by Tim McGraw of his newly minted CMA Award-winning “Humble and Kind.” McGraw ended his hit flanked by a collection of candle-holding kids and teens.
In keeping with the night’s theme of honoring the Association’s past, Paisley and Underwood then introduced a performance by Alan Jackson and George Strait, who performed “Remember When” alongside clips of more classic acceptance speeches from over the years.
Vocal Duo of the Year went to Brothers Osborne, their first win in the category.
Keith Urban took the stage next for a soulful performance in a simple black suit, his wife Nicole Kidman watching from front row. Little Big Town then took the stage again to accept the award for Vocal Group of the Year.
Then it was time for one of the most anticipated moments of the night: Beyonce making her CMA Awards debut. She was joined onstage by the Dixie Chicks for an extended jam of her country-flecked “Lemonade” track, “Daddy Lessons.”
The “Hold Up” singer dazzled in pearls and a bejeweled gown, while the Dixie Chicks stuck to black ensembles. Natalie Mains traded verses with Beyonce as the assembled country luminaries clapped along, feting them with a standing ovation afterward.
A tough act to follow, for sure, but Peyton Manning was up to the challenge, presenting the Pinnacle Award to Kenny Chesney -- marking only the third time in CMA history that the honor had been given out. Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift previously won.
Thomas Rhett then took the stage to sing his winning track, “Die a Happy Man.” Speaking of the night’s winners, Chris Stapleton then teamed up with Dwight Yoakam for a gospel-tinged tribute to Ray Charles, followed by a performance by Entertainer of the Year nominee Luke Bryan.
After a performance from Florida Georgia Line, Vince Gill presented the award for Female Vocalist of the Year -- but not before joking about some technical difficulties. “See why I lost this gig?” he said.
Carrie Underwood took home the prize -- for the fourth time.
Throughout the night, presenters were good enough to keep the crowd updated on howwere doing in Game 7 of the World Series, much to the delight of the crowd.
To hand out the night’s second big career-spanning honor, “Grace and Frankie” star Lily Tomlin presented the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award to her “9 to 5” co-star Dolly Parton “for being an iconic artist in country music,” she said. “Dolly is country music, pure and simple.”
Jennifer Nettles and Pentatonix kicked off a tribute to Parton, beginning with an a cappella version of her hit “Jolene.” Reba McEntire then took over, singing “9 to 5” with a full band, followed by Kacey Musgraves, who sang “Here You Come Again.”
Underwood and Martina McBride then came out to join the others for a group rendition of “I Will Always Will You,” which brought tears to Parton’s eyes.
Or maybe not. “I would’ve cried, but I didn’t want to mess up my eyelashes,” Parton joked when she reached the stage. “This is an absolute high for me,” she added, referencing the award’s Willie Nelson namesake.
“They asked me to hurry it up, they said that they’re behind,” she said. “But we’re talking about a lifetime here.”
Sharon Stone then took the stage to present Male Vocalist of the Year, citing early winners like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. The latest name to be added to that list was Chris Stapleton.
Despite the show running behind schedule, co-host Paisley still needed to perform, with a sweeping rendition of “Today.”
“Look at this. Fifty years,” he said. “We’re one big, crazy family.”
Earlier in the night, Underwood and Paisley promised that all the living previous Entertainer of the Year winners would be on hand, so the night wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by Taylor Swift, who came out to present to this year’s winner.
And the big winner of the night? Garth Brooks, cementing his return to music.
“We are so damn lucky for being part of this thing called country music,” Brooks said from the stage.