This year has been a long succession of baffling events, so there was no way the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards wouldn’t feel oh-so-2020. Already postponed from its original April date due to Covid-19 and converted to a virtual, non-audience event in Nashville for the first time, ACMs looked into the weird with another first: a Thomas Rhett tie-in and Carrie Underwood for the evening’s top prize, Artist of the Year.
“What’s going on right now?” asked Thomas Rhett, which is a very good question, anyway you decide it. The evening marked her first Entertainer win and Underwood’s third, making her the only female artist to have won Entertainer three times (she had already won in 2008 and 2009).
With performances and presentations at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the Bluebird Cafe and the Grand Ole Opry House, the ACM Awards attempted to answer the question of how to hold an awards ceremony in the age of Covid? With two other national award shows scheduled by early November (the CMT Awards and the CMA Awards), the reprogrammed ACMs could have been the sacrificial pancake of the short stack. Instead, he succeeded, thanks to a willingness to accept our current normal.
While three of the Old Dominion guys were the top winners of the night with three awards apiece, Luke Combs picked up a few big prizes, taking home the Album of the Year trophy for What you see is what you get and one for the Male Artist of the Year. He also sang “Better Together” and made some veterans of the US military very happy by presenting them with a truck of guitars in a pre-recorded segment. (In fact, much of the three-hour show was pre-recorded.)
Combs was in attendance for the opening of the show, which featured the five artist of the year nominees making a mix of their hits. Luke Bryan sang “Rain Is a Good Thing”, Eric Church delivered a solo “Drink in My Hand”, Rhett performed “It Goes Like This” at the Ryman, Combs sang “When It Rains It Pours” at the Bluebird and Underwood closed with “Before He Cheats”. It was a load to see artists singing with a band again – until the weirdness of the year returned every time a propulsive performance ended with dead silence instead of applause.
Combs’ rise has coincided with the reduced presence of the most recent generation of male superstars. Jason Aldean was nowhere to be found, while Luke Bryan smiled through Kenny Chesney’s rather charming “One Margarita” tribute, dreaming of a beach somewhere far away like the rest of us. Urban, although he did an admirable job of hosting, had a seemingly pantomimed performance of “One Too Many” with Pink.
Old Dominion and Dan + Shay are respectively the dominant vocal group and duo in country music at the moment. The former performed a mix of their songs and accepted a few accolades while very responsibly wearing their protective masks to deliver acceptance speeches, while the latter won another vocal duet of the year and sang ” I should probably go to bed ”. Previous Vocal Duo of the Year winners Florida Georgia Line added to the year’s utter oddity with their performance of “I Love My Country,” in which an injured Tyler Hubbard toured the scene. scene on a knee scooter. This year sucks, so why try to hide it? Instead, FGL offered a fun alternative to screaming into their pillow.
As usual, the women did a lot of the heavy lifting. Miranda Lambert, along with her co-authors Luke Dick and Natalie Hemby, performed her hit “Bluebird” at the Bluebird Cafe. Even though it was a bit on the nose, it’s one of those songs that taps into the extra reserves of resilience that we all need to summon right now. It’s also another example of why Lambert is the most successful artist in ACM history.
Underwood paid a fabulous tribute to the great women of the Grand Ole Opry, sliding effortlessly between “Crazy” by Patsy Cline, “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” by Barbara Mandrell “I Was Country (When Country Wasn) ) ”. ‘t Cool) ”,“ The Night the Lights Died in Georgia ”by Reba McEntire and“ Broken Wing ”by Martina McBride. Side note: We were listening to a full album of Underwood singing McBride songs because she knows how to bring the fireworks up.
Kelsea Ballerini did a rendition of “Hole in the Bottle” which mixed a Floyd Cramer style piano with a clever selection of bluegrass. Gabby Barrett made her way through the vengeful hit “I Hope”. Maren Morris delivered a sublimely sweet version of “To Hell & Back” from her album Girl, and then gave an acceptance speech for Female Artist of the Year in which she admitted she desperately needed to urinate, then urged everyone to vote.
Oh, hey, Taylor Swift was also in the house, making a return to ACM after a seven-year absence. Accompanied by a single harmonica player, Swift’s performance of “Betty” from the surprise album of 2020 Folklore had all the calm of his infamous ACM Performance of “Tim McGraw” sung directly to its namesake. She looked gorgeous and even made a clever, TV-friendly little flip from the song’s F-bomb lyric bomb to the more FCC-friendly “straight to hell”.
As for actually tackling the scourges of systemic racism or misogyny or the pandemic or climate change, that was a mixed bag. Urban began the show by noting that we were facing “two pandemics: Covid-19 and social injustice. Far too many lives have been lost by both. Which, while technically correct, is a less scary way of saying “racism” when you worry about how people will react. Elsewhere, Kane Brown sang “Worldwide Beautiful” with the help of a line of backing singers on the balcony of the Opry House to sell the idea of harmony and togetherness. And Church played guitar on Johnny Cash’s entire “Ragged Ol ‘Flag” recitation before deciphering it in “Stick That in Your Country Song,” which was breezy but sounded more like an importance message. to have a message.
In the end, it was Mickey Guyton’s performance of “What are you going to tell him?” who cut through the noise. It was Guyton’s first time performing on ACMs, so her song about being a woman and having your dreams crushed was imbued with strong emotion, especially since the radio didn’t grant her not much attention. Guyton, for her part, absolutely knocked her out of the park, demonstrating she has a world-class pipe set as well as something big to say. It’s worth pointing out that Keith Urban was Guyton’s accompanist on the piano, but wisely stayed out of the spotlight during his big time.
Interstitials throughout the event showed stars receiving camera-ready touch-ups from makeup artists in face screens, and presenters like Darius Rucker removing a fresh, clean microphone from a sanitized plastic bag. It was a recognition of how strange everything is, but also that it is possible to organize a big televised event with the right precautions. In a city that has stumbled many times in its efforts to contain virus risks, it was nice to see.
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