This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Country Music Association Awards, which will air live on ABC November 2. A golden celebration evokes elegance and legacy, and for the ceremony known as "Country Music's Biggest Night," the Country Music Association (CMA) is putting on its rhinestones and diamonds and rolling out the red carpet to honor the industry's special guests.
"One of the things that's exciting this year," explains Sarah Trahern, CEO of the CMA, "is that we've invited back past winners in the Entertainer of the Year and Male and Female Vocalist of the Year categories. We want to celebrate the history of our music and have the artists who won in past years welcome the great newcomers."
As usual, the glue that holds the show together is its hosts.
Carrie Underwood came to Nashville from Oklahoma after winning American Idol in its fourth season. Brad Paisley was still in junior high when he joined a famed West Virginia radio show, opening for The Judds, Ricky Skaggs, and other A-list performers.
Between them, they've won some 20 CMA Awards.
Now, in their ninth year of hosting, Underwood, 33, and Paisley, who turns 44 just five days before the ceremony, are Music City royalty. With a deep love of traditional country music, they bridge the rural sounds and sensibilities of yesterday with country's modern hybrid of pop, rock, soul, hip-hop, and blues.
"It's a big deal, 50 years," Paisley says. "This is the year to show some class. I will be wearing a tuxedo."
"Woo-ooo!" counters Underwood, who always wears a glamorous dress for the occasion. "Finally," she laughs, "he'll step it up and match me a little more!"
Underwood feels free to tease him, because they've been friends since she opened shows for him at the start of her career. The two have a close relationship. ("We're definitely there for each other," she says.) And they write a large part of the show's material, texting each other with ideas months ahead of time.
They've weathered tough moments together, like filling time on live TV when skits were cut or when an artist decided to drop out at the last minute. "But Brad's good at thinking on his feet," Underwood says, "so it always works out."
"There's a lot of trust between us," Paisley adds. "That's key when you're standing out there on that tightrope. More than that, what makes a great balance is she has such grace, and I don't."
Over the years, they've settled into their comfortable identities on the show, Underwood playing the "straight man" who reins in Paisley's flights of fancy. "I'll say crazy things, and she'll be the voice of reason," Paisley explains.
"Brad is willing to make himself the butt of the joke, which you've got to respect," says Underwood. "We're both willing to look stupid, but he assumes the role of annoying big brother. And I'm sure he would call me the annoying little sister."
"The personas you see onstage, what I call the 'George and Gracie moments,' " adds Trahern, "are really their natural chemistry. It's something magical."
"Brad and Carrie work together so well because they understand each other, their timing works, and they're sensitive to each other onstage," says executive producer Robert Deaton. He recalls that when he first put them together in 2008, "We had no way of knowing how good they'd be, but two or three years later, we realized they're as special as Sonny and Cher were as a duo. They do a 10-minute opening monologue, and they make it look easier than it really is. That's really hard work. It's an art form."
The awards show, which drew 16 million viewers in 2015, is the shiniest jewel in the considerable crown of the Country Music Association, the first trade organization formed to promote a genre of music. Founded in 1958, the CMA now has 7,300 members, made up mostly of industry professionals. Online voting determines the winners in both performing and nonperforming categories.
You might say Elvis started it. "The CMA was an outcome of the growth of rock "n" roll," says Jo Walker-Meador, who was the CMA's first employee in 1958 and served as executive director from 1962 until her retirement in 1991. "When Elvis and others came along in the mid-1950s, radio-station owners started programming that kind of music and dropping country."
Paisley promises to step up his usual casual attire for this year's festivities, which excites the always glamorously dressed Underwood.
At a spring 1958 meeting of the Country Music Disc Jockey Association, a number of country industry executives, including numerous radio-station owners, the manager of the Grand Ole Opry, and Wesley Rose (whose father, Fred, published the timeless songs of the great Hank Williams), convened in Miami to bemoan their fate.
With their livelihoods at stake, they decided to expand the organization to raise awareness of the genre and support its growth. That November, with 160 members, they changed its name to the Country Music Association. Walker-Meador started work in December.
The CMA Awards debuted in 1967, with Sonny James and Bobbie Gentry as hosts. That first ceremony wasn't broadcast, but the following year, Dale Evans and Roy Rogers fronted what became the first nationally televised music awards program on network TV. Over the years, the show went live, expanded from one hour to three hours, and changed networks and venues.
This year's show will be an opportunity to toast the past and present and, as always, break new artists. Expect lots of surprise duets and mash-ups, as with last year's showstopping performance by Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake, which Deaton calls "one of the greatest performances of all time."
Through the years, the CMA has seen many changes as the idea of what defines country music has morphed into something that early giants like Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells would no longer recognize. If Hank Williams came to Nashville now, he'd most likely not get a record deal.
Country was in its postmodern age when the smooth balladeer Eddy Arnold took home the first Entertainer of the Year Award. The 1970s brought a harder sound (Merle Haggard) and the outlaw movement (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings), while the 1980s, spurred largely by the success of the film Urban Cowboy, saw the rise of New Traditionalists (Randy Travis, George Strait) and country-rock bands that appealed to young listeners (Alabama).
If country needed more worldwide appeal, it got it when Garth Brooks stormed the stage in the 1990s with amped-up arena rock. Then the Dixie Chicks, Kenny Chesney, and Taylor Swift ushered in a return to pop, only to have the party and pickup-truck wave of "Bro Country" take over the 2000s (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean), blending pop, rock, and hip-hop to widen country's reach.
"Country music is what country people will buy," insists Kenny Rogers. "When it's not country, they won't buy it. And the good news is, these kids are bringing in a lot more people."
Paisley predicts the next wave will see a return to mature, more meaningful lyrics. "If you turn on country music," he says, "it's always "Friday," everybody has a beer, and pretty painted toes are tappin' on the dashboard. But I think we're coming back, as far as songwriting goes."
Walker-Meador didn't sit back and cringe as the genre moved further from its storytelling roots. "Everything has to change if it's going to grow," she says.
One of the show's most famous moments came in a protest of those musical changes, especially pop artists capturing awards that usually went to traditionalists. The Australian singer Olivia Newton-John, for example, took home the Female Vocalist of the Year trophy in 1974, defeating Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tanya Tucker. The next year, Charlie Rich, the reigning Entertainer of the Year, was to present the award to his successor, and on live TV, he flicked his cigarette lighter to burn the card bearing the name of John Denver. It was a clear message that a neo-folk, pop-radio staple such as Denver had no place in country music.
"I'd love for something like that to happen again," Paisley jokes. Walker-Meador laughs. "Some highlights we don't like to remember," she says.
But other moments were hauntingly beautiful: When songwriter Cindy Walker was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, she read a poem about her mother's wishes for her dress, and Alan Jackson's performance of "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" spoke to the devastating events of 9/11 and gave words to a nation's grief.
Like so many fans around the world, Underwood and Paisley grew up watching the awards from home and fantasizing about being able to attend them someday. The CMA Awards are so important to the industry, in fact, that Paisley likens them to the Oscars.
"If you're an actor, you want to win an Oscar, and if you're a country music artist, you want to win a CMA Award. You can see the emotion in their acceptance speeches, and the audience recognizes it too. This means something, and it has for 50 years."