The 52nd ACM Awards hit many of the right notes, as the Las Vegas blowout assembled country’s heavy hitters for a mostly entertaining show. Along with honoring today’s country music, the production also paid tribute to early rock & roll and Nineties boy-band pop, two moves that could have felt shoe-horned in if not for the game collaborators – Joe Walsh and Backstreet Boys, respectively – who graced the stage. Still, the night wasn’t without missteps. Here’s the best, worst and oh-my-god moments of the 2017 ACMs.
Seeing Miranda Lambert alone onstage singing “Tin Man” from The Weight of These Wings wasn’t really a surprise, given how quickly it’s become a fan favorite and staple of her live sets. But she sure stole the show with it. All the schmaltz and star-studded duets that Nashville could muster couldn’t hope to compete with Lambert’s devasting, raw performance, her voice quavering as it echoed from the otherwise empty stage. She carried on that understated dignity as she accepted her two awards for Album of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year, the latter of which you never would’ve known she had won for a record-setting eighth-consecutive time (breaking her own record, no less). Her acceptance speech was succinct and selfless: “I’m glad to see females kicking ass this year. I’m so proud to be a part of that.” J.G.
It was tough to catch, but this year’s ACM ceremony actually included a WTF identity crisis moment – the Academy of Country Music giving an award to its rival, the Country Music Association. The award for Video of the Year went to “Forever Country,” a mashup of three classic songs and 30 artists that was produced by the CMA to celebrate their 50th anniversary awards show last November. All of the artists who were in attendance went up to accept the trophy – Lady Antebellum, Jason Aldean, Tim McGraw, among them – but when Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild stepped to the mic she was speaking as a member of the CMA board of directors, not an artist. Strictly speaking, the ACM and the CMA aren’t really competitors (they’re not-for-profit advocacy organizations), but they do vie for prestige, so count it as a grudging tip of the hat for a project that helped connect country’s growing number of young fans with the legendary music of the past. C.P.
Three years ago, Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” reopened the doors on a fading but beloved country tradition: the ballad. Sure, these moments often appeared as album cuts, but rarely did they make news or the awards show stage. At the ACMs, however, the ballad was boss. Keith Urban, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and even terminal twang-rocker Jason Aldean trafficked in their mellow, contemplative tempos. And while Morris and Urban went high energy for their Grammy performances back in February, they both used the ACMs to showcase the drama and set a reminder that it’s always smart to take things slow. M.M.
Chris Stapleton didn’t win any awards at this year’s ACMs, but he did fire off a blazing TV debut of his brand new song, “Second One to Know.” Whiskey-bent and waiting on a broken heart, the track stands at the intersection of straight-up rock and country blues, co-written by the grizzled vocal phenom with his old SteelDrivers collaborator, Mike Henderson. It’s the first taste of Stapleton’s upcoming second album (out May 5th), and his performance was one of the night’s most ferocious – right down to the single-note, Chuck Berry-influenced guitar solo. Locked into the moment and going for broke, Stapleton was chopping at the strings so hard he looked like he was cutting down a tree. It arrived about midway through the show and was reminiscent of Stapleton’s breakthrough performance at the 2015 CMA Awards, completely re-energizing the crowd with something totally unexpected. C.P.
Dwight Yoakam. Johnny Paycheck. Junior Brown. Country music has had no shortage of singers with badass hats. Alas, the one atop Cole Swindell’s noggin is not one of them. The fitted Georgia Southern University ball cap all but signals he’s a frat boy for life, yet he wears it – or one like it – at each and every awards show. The real affront though was more musical than sartorial, thanks to “Flatliner,” his should-have-died-in-the-ambulance-ride collaboration with Dierks Bentley. While the song aims for a similar fun, party vibe as Bentley’s 2012 hit “5-1-5-0” – which has to be why Bentley agreed to this low point – it does nothing more than reinforce why bro country has got to go. “Sippin’ on this seven n’ seven / never been this close to heaven / got the pretty turned up to eleven” sound more like parody lyrics than lines that were actually delivered onstage at the ACMs. The performance and song itself should have come with a DNR order. A.G.
It was not a surprise that Florida Georgia Line teamed up with Backstreet Boys at the ACM Awards for a one-two combo of FGL’s current single, the earnest ballad “God, Your Mama and Me,” and BSB’s 1997 classic “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” The pop vocal quintet is featured on the former – which currently resides in the Top 20 – and the two groups have performed the latter together at least twice before, at last fall’s iHeartRadio festival and at FGL’s Nashville show a few weeks later. The love runs so deep between the groups that they will play several stadium shows together this summer.
What was a bit of shock was to see how much “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” electrified the A-list front row at the awards – including Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood and Maren Morris. In fact, the entire audience of fans in the T-Mobile Arena seemed to be singing along to every “Backstreet’s back, alright!” and dancing as if no one was watching. Except millions of people were. And let’s face it, many of those people at home were doing the same thing, helpless in the face of the twin powers of nostalgia and an indelible Max Martin hook. F.C.A.
Walking away with two awards and a brief but well-received performance under their belt, Brothers Osborne were one of the night’s biggest surprises, and they may have been more shocked about it than anyone. They came into the evening as early winners – they were named New Vocal Duo or Group of the Year the week before – and then went on to snatch the Vocal Duo of the Year award away from defending champs Florida Georgia Line. Their gracious acceptance speech was an emotional high point of the night, full of bewildered phrases like “What the hell?” and “How is this happening?” And all of the arena tried to match TJ Osborne’s booming bass vocal and the supercharged handclaps on “It Ain’t My Fault.” But as fun as it was to watch the duo experience a career breakthrough on live TV, the best part may be what their double win says about country’s future – that ever-bigger production isn’t necessarily the only path forward. A back-to-basics approach can still connect. C.P.
If you want to pay tribute to a legendary rock guitarist, call on a legendary rock guitarist. The ACMs did it right by tapping needer-of-no-introduction Joe Walsh to knock a salute to the late Chuck Berry right out of the park. Teaming up with Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley for a rollicking “Johnny B. Goode,” Walsh all but stole the spotlight from the co-hosts and had Vegas rocking like an outsized juke joint. Short of duck walking, Walsh’s blood-and-guts six-string fireworks rightfully channeled the spirit of the recently deceased iconic innovator. A.G.
Co-hosts Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley have a hokey chemistry that makes many of their bro-country dad joke stylings yield more LOLs than they honestly deserve. That said, the ACMs opening monologue – a guided slide show of the pair’s wild and crazy night out in Sin City the night before – was a reminder of why what happens in Vegas should indeed stay there. Team Bryantley went fishin’ in the Fountains of Bellagio, got sawed in half by an ostensibly tipsy David Copperfield, became leotard-clad honorary Cirque du Soleil cast members, got blackout drunk and dressed in Thomas Rhett cosplay at MGM Grand hotspot Hakkasan, and even posed oiled up and shirtless with the hot bods from male revue Thunder From Down Under. Despite a chuckle-worthy line or two, the bit mostly served as a reminder for why the world definitely doesn’t need another Hangover sequel. A.G.
Luke Bryan’s wax statue aside, the humor was predictably obvious at times, with the Oscars’ Best Picture mix-up an all-but-inevitable target. The not-so-sick burn was delivered during the very first category by illusionist David Copperfield and entertainment journalist Nancy O’Dell, who announced that the Song of the Year winner was Emma Stone for La La Land. They doubled down on the joke, even giving Copperfield the “wrong” card to present to the camera. It was probably better to get that one out of the way early, but it wasn’t the only awkward moment from the presenters. Rising star Kane Brown seemed to have only one paltry line to read, stiff-as-a-board NASCAR drivers looked like deer in their own headlights and Kellie Pickler had the dubious honor of presenting New Male, Female and Duo winners with their trophies immediately after their performances. J.G.