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Old Country and New Make Peace at the 2013 CMA Awards

Old Country New Country
Rick Diamond / Kevin Winter, Getty Images

The 2013 CMA Awards were a time for old country and new country to come together and find common ground.

There’s been quite a bit of debate in the last year about the state of the commercial country industry, country radio, and whether the music that they record, promote and play constitutes real country music. And the argument is not without basis; it’s undeniable that the music is evolving rapidly, and taking on more and more elements of pop and — even more unthinkable to traditionalists — rap.

Brad Paisley even tackled the subject head-on in the opening number on Wednesday night (Nov. 7), jokingly handing out “feud assignments” that ended up pitting him against Kenny Rogers. In one of the evening’s most unexpected moments, Luke Bryan and Zac Brown — who was recently quoted as saying Bryan’s ‘That’s My Kind of Night’ was “the worst song I have ever heard” – comically hugged onscreen in a sign that all is forgiven.

That was indicative of the tone of the rest of the night, where all of the different facets of country music were represented on the stage at various times. And while some of the performances represented somewhat of a changing of the guard — the success of Florida Georgia Line, for instance, might have been quite unlikely not very long ago, and Eric Church‘s cutting-edge performance wouldn’t have been completely out of place at a heavy metal awards show — the emphasis was on balance.

Brown and his band debuted a new song, ‘Day for the Dead,’ that challenges the boundaries of country, but is still steeped in the traditions of the genre. Bryan performed his hick hop anthem ‘That’s My Kind of Night,’ but then turned around and gave an astonishingly understated acoustic performance of ‘Drink a Beer’ that was one of the night’s undeniable highlights. Kacey Musgraves‘ new single, ‘Follow Your Arrow,’ is right in the vein of country’s singer-songwriter traditions, yet evidently still so challenging lyrically that the CMA felt obliged to censor her performance.

Taylor Swift is practically the poster child for the new wave of pop country, yet she was joined by Vince Gill and Alison Krauss for a restrained acoustic-based rendition of ‘Red.’

Let’s not forget that two of the highlights of the night came in the form of tributes to legends — Alan Jackson and George Strait paying tribute to George Jones by singing ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ was as country as anything that’s ever aired in the history of the CMA Awards. And isn’t it ironic that Kenny Rogers — himself accused of not being “country enough” in his commercial heyday — is now considered such an essential part of the fabric of country music history that he was not only the subject of a special musical tribute, he also received a lifetime achievement award?

The “not country enough” debate is an old one, and it never ends. It’s not unlikely that 30 years from now, some 50-year-old man will settle in to watch the 77th annual CMA Awards, turn to his wife and grumble, “You know, it just ain’t country — not like back when we listened to Florida Georgia Line.”

But Wednesday night’s broadcast was one of the most entertaining, best-paced and diverse in recent years, and it featured a number of artists who are all very different from one another, all operating under the country banner, and all doing extremely well in the marketplace. So if that’s any indication of where country is headed, well . . . the future of country music looks pretty bright from here.

Next: See All the Performances at the 2013 CMA Awards

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