(MCT) - Though it takes place at the start of awards season -- and is presented by the same Nashville trade group that puts on the Country Music Assn. Awards -- "CMA Country Christmas" doesn't revolve around the distribution of trophies.
It's an annual holiday TV special in which country stars perform Christmas songs and describe their down-home family traditions; the singers with young children are evidently encouraged to trot them before the cameras, more grist for the merry mill.
Still, it was hard not to watch this year's show, taped last month at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena and broadcast Monday on ABC, without giving out some imaginary awards.
Most Dead-Eyed Performance of a Yuletide Staple, for instance, was a fierce two-way fight between Rascal Flatts, who drained everything jolly from "Jingle Bell Rock," and Lucy Hale, who despite her regular acting gig on "Pretty Little Liars" brought zero believability to "Christmas (Baby Please Come)." (Rascal Flatts barely edged out Hale out the win.)
Most Calculating Brand Extension was similarly contested, with Sheryl Crow battling Mary J. Blige for the attention of an audience increasingly besieged by such country carpetbaggers.
And yet other categories presented clear victors, including Most Horrifying Christmas Costume, which Jennifer Nettles won with the glittery candy-cane get-up she wore for "What Christmas Means to Me," and Strangest Makeup Job, dominated by Kellie Pickler, who looked in "The Man With the Bag" like a time-traveling refugee from the Weimar Republic.
Is it clear that this two-hour special failed to roast our chestnuts?
Hunter Hayes went Jason Mraz -- OK, more Jason Mraz -- in a goofy acoustic version of "Let It Snow" recorded on his tour bus. Luke Bryan wheeled out Willie Robertson from "Duck Dynasty" for a typically pandering "Hairy Christmas," from the Robertson family's surprise-hit holiday album. (Side note: How does a song called "Hairy Christmas" not include the words "happy new beard"?)
And the men of Rascal Flatts appeared a second time -- Santa save us -- to sleepwalk their way through one of the show's few religious moments, "A Strange Way to Save the World." Along with a forgettable Michael W. Smith, Trace Adkins was the evening's other voice of faith, flexing his stentorian baritone in "I Saw Three Ships" and "Silent Night," the latter of which he did as a duet for some reason with Kevin Costner's daughter Lily.
Not all of "Country Christmas," set to re-air Dec. 14, was as terrible.
Wearing a crushed-velvet blazer that might've made Bing Crosby proud, Jake Owen moved effortlessly through a low-key "Mele Kalikimaka." Darius Rucker brought some emotion -- and, less happily, a children's choir -- to "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," the dependable John Lennon-Yoko Ono anthem.
We were even treated to an unexpected bit of delicacy by Nettles, also the show's host, who managed to turn down her maximum-cornball shtick for a lovely hotel-jazz take on Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here."
But then the Sugarland singer was joined by Blige (who'd sounded great earlier in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") for a saccharine "Winter Wonderland" that had super-sized Peanuts characters roaming the arena floor.
The award for Lamest Corporate Tie-In went to them.