A streak running through that show is anxiety about being aged out of the genre, and this year’s CMAs — with their pop arrivistes, their new gentry and their almost complete blindness toward the genre’s past — would have made for a good subplot.
Sure, there was a tribute at the end of the night to Willie Nelson, but it was tepid and rote. The real position statement was the show-opening performance of “The Only Way I Know,” by the rising stars Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Eric Church, who represent three distinct takes on the tough country mode that’s lately been dominant among male stars.
This modern country has arena ambitions, but also an agonized relationship with pop, as seen in its pinched-nose embrace of Taylor Swift, its biggest star, whether or not she’s a genre faithful.
But country, as seen through the CMAs, is relenting a bit: not to Ms. Swift, who has won the top prize twice before but who was shut out this year, but to Blake Shelton, who has increased his profile, and that of his genre, exponentially as one of the judge-mentors on “The Voice,” the NBC reality competition.
“Country radio, thank you for not forgetting about me,” he said when accepting the award for male vocalist of the year, a prize he has won three years in a row. “I know I have a side job.”
Mr. Shelton also won the night’s top prize, entertainer of the year, for the first time. He and his wife, Miranda Lambert, after working their way in from the fringes, have become establishment figures. She won female vocalist of the year, also for the third year running, and had the night’s best performance, with “Fastest Girl in Town.”
What’s more, they shared the award for song of the year, a songwriter’s prize, for “Over You,” written about Mr. Shelton’s brother, who died in a car accident, and performed by Ms. Lambert.
The CMAs all but dispense with awards — there are 12 in total, only 9 of which are given out on television — to focus on performances. The best of these showed a creeping roots-minded traditionalism. (The CMAs might be just a couple of years away from offering Mumford & Sons a performance slot.) Zac Brown Band’s “Goodbye in Her Eyes” was ornate and moving, if overlong, and the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” was dangerously impressive, a morbid, furious stomp that showcased the frontwoman Kimberly Perry’s dark ideas and rich voice.
Ms. Swift performed as well — “Begin Again,” a lightweight song from her new album — but she wasn’t the least faithful to country tradition by a long shot. See also the toothless Hunter Hayes, who performed “Wanted” behind a piano and won new artist of the year, and Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away,” a giant, dull beast of a song that suggested Meat Loaf more than any country singer.
Ms. Underwood has a gargantuan voice, one that calls attention to itself. So does Kelly Clarkson — like Ms. Underwood, a former winner of “American Idol” — which might explain why in her performance of “Don’t Rush,” a new song, she sang at about 20 percent of capacity, in a style that suggested she’d been listening to the late-1970s Crystal Gayle soft-country oeuvre.
Ms. Clarkson was one of the few performers to engage in outright nostalgia. Mostly the past, as seen through an earlier generation of stars who performed, looked cloudy and best left behind. Tim McGraw had a dolorous rendition of “One of Those Nights,” and the take of his wife, Faith Hill, on “American Heart” was flavorless and unsteady. These songs were the residue of the country balladry of the 1990s and early 2000s, a style that couldn’t be less au courant. Instead, upstarts took the spotlight. Thompson Square, an amiable husband-wife pair, won vocal duo of the year, an award that Sugarland won the previous five years straight. And Mr. Church won album of the year for “Chief,” an outlaw-esque record best known for a song called “Springsteen.”
Country music also likes to fancy itself as mischievous, and the success of Little Big Town’s “Pontoon,” which has an extremely benign sexual double entendre in the chorus, and which won single of the year, provided plenty of joke fodder, probably too much. (Little Big Town also won vocal group of the year.)
Mr. Shelton and Ms. Lambert like to tweak the rule makers too, happily using “freaking” to modify adjectives and verbs in their acceptance speeches. Even Brad Paisley, who, with Ms. Underwood, hosted the show for the fifth year in a row, took a genial swipe at the hegemony of country radio.
Mr. Paisley has become one of country’s most fascinating figures: a progressive hiding in plain sight. As a host, he’s appealingly dry and very quick, easy to enjoy with or without a wink. He can always do stand-up in Branson, Mo., should the country establishment catch on to his subversion and punish him for it.
As a tribute to Hurricane Sandy victims, he wove a few bars of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind” into the beginning of his performance of “Southern Comfort Zone,” a song that flips country’s reliance on regional pride into advocacy of travel and broad-mindedness. Mr. Paisley also tells a story about country music. You just have to read between the lines.