During the 53rd annual Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday evening (April 15), the country music community showed the strength of their resilience, and their commitment to music and to their fans, as the Nashville music community returned to Las Vegas six months after the horrific massacre that took 58 lives at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in October 2017.
The ACMs awards show opened solemnly and respectfully. Jason Aldean, who had been onstage at Route 91 when the gunfire started, led fellow stars including Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Maren Morris and Thomas Rhett to open the ACM show with offering words of healing and mourning.
“We celebrate the music tonight,” Aldean summed, ushering in the show. “America, this is your ACM Awards.”
Musically, there was much to celebrate, as this year’s show also displayed another strength–the diversity of sound in today’s country music.
By the time his name was called as the winner for Album of the Year for Songs From A Room: Vol. 1, Chris Stapleton was already one of the evening’s top winners. While Stapleton could not be in attendance, Reba McEntire took the stage to announce that Stapleton and his wife Morgane had just welcomed twin boys. On top of that, it was Stapleton’s 40th birthday. Later in the evening, he would add to his ACM trophy collection with another Male Vocalist of the Year honor.
Miranda Lambert took home her 31st and 32nd ACM Awards (for Song of the Year- “Tin Man” and Female Vocalist of the Year), making her the all-time champion for the most Academy of Country Music Awards. She also further staked her allegiance to her country music forebears with “Keeper of the Flame,” while playing an acoustic guitar signed by Loretta Lynn.
The traditional-minded songs continued with Midland’s performance of “Drinkin’ Problem,” as the group was clad in rhinestone-speckled suits and red guitars. Midland is the reigning ACM New Vocal Duo/Group of the Year.
Blake Shelton stuck to the more traditional side of his repertoire and voice as he performed twice during the show, first for an acoustic, fiddle-backed take on his new single “I Loved It.”
Aldean appeared later in the show for a smoldering rendition of “You Make It Easy,” while Chris Young offered a sterling rendition of “Losing Sleep.”
A few classics from 1993 were spotlighted as Jon Pardi and Alan Jackson teamed for a joyous rendition of “Chattahoochee.” Shelton later joining Toby Keith to perform a horn-backed version of Keith’s 1993 debut single “Should’ve Been A Cowboy.”
Guiding the evening was Reba McEntire, who first hosted the ACMs in 1986. She brought her signature blend of glamour, professionalism and cutting wit to the role.
“It’s great to be back as your host. I first hosted in 1986. To put that in perspective, not only was Kelsea Ballerini not even born, her parents weren’t even dating yet.”
For the first time since 2010, Reba hosted the show solo, while male hosts had hosted the show for the past five years (Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton from 2013-2015, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley from 2016-2017). Reba co-hosted the show with Blake Shelton from 2011-2012.
“I guess they finally figured out that it only takes one woman to do the work of two men,” she said.
On the more contemporary, pop side of the format, Sam Hunt’s radio and streaming juggernaut “Body Like A Back Road” earned Single Record of the Year.
Thomas Rhett offered his earnest ballad “Marry Me,” and Lady Antebellum offered “Heart Break.”
Incorporating the signature riff from Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Keith Urban teamed with Julia Michaels for “Coming Home.” Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line performed their mega-hit “Meant To Be.”
Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini offered two of the most sophisticated productions during the evening. Morris performed “Rich,” backed by a oversized backdrop featuring the song’s title radiating in glamorous, bare-bulb lights, and confetti falling over the stage.
“That sign came of off John Rich’s front door,” Reba quipped after the performance.
Newlywed Kelsea Ballerini was perched in a pink heart suspended above the satellite stage as she began her newest single “I Hate Love Songs.” She also employed confetti for her performance, after lowering to the stage to sing the retro ‘50s-vibe song.
In one of the evening’s biggest surprises, Old Dominion won the ACM Vocal Group of the Year honor.
“This is heavy,” said Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey. “A lot of people have made a lot of sacrifices for us to be where we are right now. We are so lucky. Look at us! We look good, we feel good, we’re friends and we’re having a ball.”
In the wake of not only the tragedy that took lives during last year’s Route 91 Harvest Festival, but also the many other adversities across the U.S. in recent months, this year’s ACM Awards also had a smattering of encouraging message songs, including Luke Bryan’s “I Believe Most People Are Good,” and the first song of the evening, Kenny Chesney’s new single “Get Along.”
The Academy brought out some of country music’s most impressive voices, from Darius Rucker’s “For The First Time,” to Dan+Shay’s Shay Mooney on the final rafter-reaching notes of “Tequila.” Meanwhile, Little Big Town’s lush, silky harmonies were other-worldly on their rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” from the tribute album Restoration.
Kane Brown and Lauren Alaina’s flirty version of their hit “What Ifs” highlighted the same beachy backdrop of its music video.
Alaina, the reigning New Female Vocalist of the Year, also appeared later in the broadcast to perform her new single “Doin’ Fine,” as did New Male Vocalist of the Year Brett Young, who offered his breakthrough “In Case You Didn’t Know.”
Anticipation was high surrounding Carrie Underwood’s return to the ACM stage, and she proved she was more than ready with a soaring rendition of her new single (and first as an artist on Capitol Nashville), “Cry Pretty.”
Underwood and Urban were honored with the Vocal Event of the Year honor, for “The Fighter.”
One notable absence from the ACM stage were Brothers Osborne, whose double ACM win this year for Vocal Duo of the Year and Music Video of the Year, not to mention their gifted vocals and hit music, should have afforded the duo a performance slot on the show.
Reba herself gave one of the evening’s most striking performances, bringing back the same iconic sheer red dress she wore for her 1993 performance of “Does He Love You.” For 2018, Reba performed the dramatic ballad with fellow ace vocalist Kelly Clarkson.
The year ended on an entirely appropriate, if slightly predictable, note with Jason Aldean earning the coveted Entertainer of the Year honor.
“It’s been a rough year,” Aldean acknowledged to the audience after his win. “Thanks to everyone who reached out to us and showed us love in the past six months. It meant the world to us. To my Route 91 people you are always in our hearts. Vegas Strong.”
Chris Janson closed out the show with an extra shot of energy for a harmonica and danced-soaked performance of “The Redneck Life.”
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