Last night’s 55th annual Academy of Country Music Awards proved to be a history-making evening, in more ways than one.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the awards show was held in Nashville for the first time, instead of its longtime home of Las Vegas. Instead of an arena packed with fans, artists performed for empty seats, at three Nashville venues—the Ryman Auditorium, Grand Ole Opry House and Bluebird Café. Many of this year’s performances were pre-taped.
2019’s Entertainer of the Year winner Keith Urban presided over the evening, offering a consistent, laid-back approach to guiding the show.
Glitzy production was mostly eschewed in favor of scaled back performances. Though the decision was made out of necessity due to social distancing and COVID restrictions, the sparse production allowed many of country music’s most gifted vocalists and song crafters to shine.
Duo of the Year winners Dan + Shay suited up for a vocal-and-keyboard power ballad “I Should Probably go To Bed,” highlighting Shay Mooney’s towering, octave-jumping falsetto.
Midway through the show, audio of Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag” served as an intro to Eric Church laying down the gauntlet, eviscerating the majority of party-centric songs on country radio, through his seething performance of “Stick That In Your Country Song” at the Grand Ole Opry House. Thunderous vocalist Joanna Cotten joined him, their voices playing off of each other, urging the intensity of the song to a defiant crescendo.
Notably, women delivered the bulk of the evening’s most memorable moments. Premier entertainer Carrie Underwood, a Grand Ole Opry member since 2008, delivered a vocal spectacle honoring the legacies of several female members of the Opry, showing off her range as she rolled through Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” a spitfire rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man,” a joyful reading of Barbara Mandrell’s ‘I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” cool and confident on Dolly’s “Why’d You Come In Here Looking Like That,” Reba’s “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” and a soaring finish with Martina’s “A Broken Wing.”
Gabby Barrett and Female Artist of the Year winner Maren Morris were powerful vocalists, Kelsea Ballerini turned in one of her most traditionally country-tuned performances to date, while Miranda Lambert showed just why she’s the most-awarded artist in ACMs history (with 35 wins) with her laid-back performance of “Bluebird” (performed appropriately at the Bluebird Café), alongside the song’s writers Luke Dick and Natalie Hemby. At the Ryman, newly-minted New Female Artist of the Year Tenille Townes performed a punk-acoustic rendering of “Somebody’s Daughter.”
“It’s a reminder that we’ve all got a story and in these times, we all need each other,” she said.
For Taylor Swift’s celebrated ACM homecoming, she returned to her singer/songwriter roots, just a guitar and a microphone, simple harmonica accompaniment, backlit by a single spotlight as she performed “betty” from her album folklore.
The most stunning of all was Mickey Guyton’s history-making turn on the Opry stage as the first Black female artist to perform her own music at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
Dressed in a flowing, pure white gown and backed only by Keith Urban’s responsive piano work, Guyton poured her heart and talent into a musical rebuttal against gender inequality—one of two impactful songs she has released this year speaking out against not only gender but racial inequality—titled “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?”.
Throughout the evening, artists including Urban, Darius Rucker and Tim McGraw acknowledged ongoing fight against social injustices in America.
“We are trying to fight two pandemics—COVID and social injustices. Far too many lives have been lost to both,” Urban said, adding, “Country music is many things, but at its heart, its center, its core, it’s about community.”
But performances from Guyton and Kane Brown spoke even louder. Brown offered an authentic take on “Worldwide Beautiful,” accompanied by a several vocalists from Belmont University’s choir.
“I just want everybody to love everybody,” Brown said.
The ACMs, which launched a task force to promote equality earlier this year, took that initiative to heart on last night’s televised show, with artists including Guyton, Brown, Rucker and Jimmie Allen all appearing.
In terms of awards, Luke Combs’ juggernaut of a career keeps surging. In just four years, he’s gone from releasing his debut single to being nominated for an ACM Entertainer of the Year nod. He did win Album of the Year for What You See Is What You Get, a project that has remained cemented in the upper echelon of the artists—and at No. 1 most weeks—since its debut. Combs also earned Male Artist of the Year.
“This album was hell to make but we did it,” he said. “Thank you fans for loving this album.”
From the Ryman, Old Dominion offered a cool mashup medley of tracks, including “One Man Band,” “Written In The Sand,” “Break Up With Him,” and more, transitioning into “Hotel Key.” They picked up two honors, Group of the Year, and Song of the Year, for “One Man Band.” Their heartfelt thank you speeches including a reference to late songwriter Andrew Dorff and thanked their crew members and fellow road warriors who have been hit hard this year as concerts have been largely shut down due to COVID.
At the Ryman, pop-polished Thomas Rhett and cowboy Jon Pardi teamed for “Beer Can’t Fix.” They even did a little coordinated fancy footwork to complete the ‘90s shuffle feel. Continuing the jeans-clad ‘90s vibe was Morgan Wallen in a Canadian tuxedo, performing “Whiskey Glasses” and prowling the Opry stage and performing for the empty seats as if there were a full house.
Blake Shelton picked up Single of the Year for “God’s Country.”
“This is a shock and an honor,” he said, thanking producer Scott Hendricks as well as his Warner Music Nashville team and country radio. “You’ve been so good to me with all my singles.”
Another of country music’s most revered vocalists and song interpreters, Trisha Yearwood, honored those country music has lost over the past year, including Kenny Rogers, Charlie Daniels, Bob Kingsley, Jimmy Capps, John Prine, Joe Diffie, Jan Howard, busbee, and so many more.
The evening ended with another history-making shock, when Urban announced a tie for the Entertainer of the Year honors. Rhett celebrated his first win in the category, while Underwood earned her third Entertainer of the Year accolade (and her first in more than a decade).
“Oh my goodness gracious…Keith, what is happening right now?” Thomas Rhett said, before going on to thank his family and team.
“2020, man,” said Underwood, in accepting her honor. “I am more than happy to share this with Thomas Rhett,” she said, going on to praise all of the year’s nominees. She also left the audience with a message that summed what so many entertainers and their teams feel during this strange year: “You guys, hold on [live music] will happen again. Just hold on.”
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