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2018 ACM Awards: 15 Best, Worst and WTF Moments

From Reba McEntire’s sharp return as host to Carrie Underwood’s show-stopping performance

To use some Las Vegas lingo, the 53rd ACM Awards were pretty much a push, as any major wins the show pulled off were tempered with missteps and head-scratching moments. 

Women delivered some of the night’s best performances, but were shut out of the Entertainer of the Year race. Brothers Osborne and Old Dominion both cemented their status, but neither received a performance slot. And the shadow over the room – how to acknowledge the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting – never seemed to be fully dispelled. Here are the 15 best, worst and WTF moments of the 2018 ACMs. 

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WTF: Why Didn’t Brothers Osborne Perform?

Brothers Osborne won two ACM Awards this year, including their second consecutive win for Vocal Duo of the Year and Video of the Year for “It Ain’t My Fault,” but you wouldn’t know it from watching the show. Siblings John and TJ Osborne were presented with those trophies before the broadcast on the ACMs’ – untelevised – blue carpet. The Brothers have a superlative new album, Port St. Joe, due April 20th, and lead single “Shoot Me Straight” features a blistering guitar solo from John that would have injected some much-needed energy into a staid night, but they were seemingly and inexplicably snubbed. When media and fans alike noted their absence online, they tweeted simply: “Would have loved to have been a part of it.” H.K.

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Worst: ACMs Mainly Shy Away From Route 91

Taking place in Las Vegas a little more than six months after last year’s Route 91 Harvest festival shooting, all eyes were on the ACMs to see how the awards show would officially pay tribute to the hundreds of victims and casualties of the October 1st mass shooting. “With respect and love for the victims, our friends, family and fans, we celebrate the music tonight,” Jason Aldean announced alongside Luke Bryan, Maren Morris, Thomas Rhett and Miranda Lambert during the show’s brief spoken-word cold open. But with nary a single further mention of the Vegas victims or first responders for the rest of the night apart from a rushed charity reel and a heartfelt shout-out from Aldean during his Entertainer of the Year acceptance speech, the ACMs’ somber opening felt less like a tribute and more like an explanation for the lack of one. J.B.

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Best: Carrie Underwood Makes a Stunning Comeback

ACM organizers had promised some “very honest emotion” on Sunday night, and it wound up coming from Carrie Underwood’s return to the stage for a gutsy performance of her new song “Cry Pretty.” The message and the moment weren’t lost on Underwood, who hadn’t made a public appearance since suffering facial injuries in a fall last November. She was almost visibly trembling from the mix of expectation and adrenaline, but she channeled it into a stunning and triumphant performance that was easily the night’s most resounding feel-good event. Moments after she’d wrapped up the song with tears streaming down, Underwood was back on stage in a near-daze to accept the Vocal Event award for her duet on “The Fighter” with Keith Urban. “Thank you for having me. I’m still kind of shaky right now,” she said. J.G.

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Best: Dierks Bentley Seals It With a Kiss

Dierks Bentley is always at his best when he’s swinging for the emotional fences. And the singer delivered a rendition of his Imagine Dragons-gone-country lovers anthem “Woman, Amen” that was more memorable than any of the goofy quips he cracked co-hosting last year’s show with Luke Bryan. But it was after going from a multitude of rafter-reaching, heartstring-tugging gestures, to taking a knee in deference to the women in the room, that Bentley sent the feels over the top, by walking down to his front-row-seated wife and sealing the performance with a kiss. A.G.

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Best: Old Dominion Come Out of Nowhere

Old Dominion were already a surprise when the ACM nominations were announced in March, scoring a seemingly out-of-left-field Album of the Year nod for their second LP Happy Endings. They also, fittingly, were nominated for Vocal Group of the Year – which Matt Ramsey and co. claimed in the night’s ultimate upset, besting heavy favorites Little Big Town. Their win provided one of the night’s most emotional acceptance speeches, as band members struggled to find words and the cameras captured their wives in tears. Oddly, Old Dominion, like Brothers Osborne, didn’t land a performance slot, which seems like a slight given their high-profile nominations. No doubt that’ll be rectified next year, as O.D. just realized their happiest of endings. J.H.

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WTF: ACMs Loves the Nineties

Flashbacks are things you’re supposed to have on LSD, not at country awards shows. But with the ACMs migrating its Pioneer and Veteran categories to its sister show, the ACM Honors, which airs in the fall on CBS, producers found another way to work the nostalgia angle. Enter the first (and hopefully last) series of ACM Flashback Moments, paying “tribute to hits that are timeless.” Apparently (and probably because Nineties nostalgia is all the rage in 2018), that means throwing it back to the hits from 25 years ago, as the trio of duets celebrated the classic country sounds of 1993. ‘Twas the year of Lorena Bobbitt, Waco and the West Memphis Three. It was also the year Alan Jackson took home an ACM Single of the Year award for “Chattahoochee,” and Toby Keith topped the charts with his debut single “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.” While Jackson and Jon Pardi’s romp through the former was a spirited enough trip down pop-country memory lane, Keith, as joined by Blake Shelton, looked at best unenthused to be shoehorned into the bottom of the show. Meanwhile, Reba, decked out in the same red dress she wore at the 1993 ACMs, tapped Kelly Clarkson for a sing-off on her powerhouse Linda Davis duet “Does He Love You.” Like the Jackson/Pardi performance, it was as great as it was totally pointless. A.G.

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Best: Chris Janson Makes Must-See TV

Chris Janson has never met a stage he didn’t steal and his show-closing performance at the ACMs was no exception. The wiry “Fix a Drink” singer, still an unknown commodity to many viewers at home, made the most of the few minutes he had by tearing into his real-life rocker “Redneck Life.” Bounding across the stage and down the steps, wailing furiously on harmonica, while Luke Bryan looked on bewildered, Janson proved why he was the ideal choice to recently be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry – where, incidentally, ACM CEO and the show’s producer Pete Fisher, former GM of the Opry, witnessed Janson perform countless times. While giving the Missouri native a mid-show slot to sing his woke-bro piano ballad “Drunk Girl” would have been the best acknowledgment of Janson’s talent, there are scarce few who could have turned a credits-rolling performance into a must-see moment. J.H. 

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Best: Miranda Lambert Fills Big Shoes

The song Miranda Lambert sang at the ACMs could also serve as the mission statement for her entire career. “Keeper of the Flame” is the final single from her double album The Weight of These Wings, and it lays out her intention of keeping the songwriting traditions of her country music heroes alive. Delivering that message obviously meant a lot to Lambert, who wiped away tears when the audience gave her a standing ovation following her performance. Even though she beat Brooks & Dunn’s record to became the all-time winningest artist in ACM Awards history this year, Lambert’s career choices prove that she’s really not making music for the glory of winning awards and racking up Number Ones. In an era where many mainstream country stars would be hard-pressed to name five George Jones hits off the top of their head, Lambert has delivered the answer song to the Possum’s 1985 single “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” in which Jones wondered aloud who would pick up where he, Hank, Johnny and Conway left off. With that ACM performance, Miranda Lambert laid Jones’ fears to rest. H.K.

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Worst: B-Stage Is for “Boring”

At its best, the B-Stage at major awards show like the ACMs is the perfect place to showcase exciting new talent – and keep the good vibes flowing while crew members flip the main stage for a new performance. At its worst, it can be a bland and half-hearted sideshow that feels in the way, which was the case for much of this year’s ceremony. Although Kenny Chesney started the night off strong with his politically astute stadium anthem “Get Along,” and Midland showed why they were named the New Vocal Duo or Group of Year – all cherry-red guitars, matching Hollywood-cowboy suits and the smooth vocal pour of “Drinkin’ Problem” – the B-Stage was often where the night’s electricity shorted out. Brett Young’s rendition of “In Case You Didn’t Know” felt as sterile as the doctor’s-office stool he was seated on, and even though Chris Young did his best to bring some energy to “Losing Sleep,” the lack of a drummer ultimately left his mid-tempo romp feeling like it had just downed some NyQuil. C.P.

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Best: Florida Georgia Line, Bebe Rexha Celebrate Diversity

For as much hand-wringing anxiety as it caused the country border police, Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha’s “Meant to Be” has since turned into a jam for all seasons. On an ACM Awards stage that sorely needed it, the song sounded weirdly, surprisingly uplifting and boasted an ace harmonizing job from Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, who paired nicely with Rexha’s soft coo. Topping it all off, a diverse choir of many races and genders was called in to sing that indelible hook, making destiny seem less like a philosophical construct and more like something anyone can manifest with just a little trust. J.F.

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Best: Little Big Town Take “Rocket Man” Into Orbit

At first, Bernie Taupin wasn’t into the idea of Little Big Town taking on the (in his opinion) over-covered “Rocket Man” on the new country covers album Restoration: The Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. But he changed his tune when he heard the arresting harmonies on the group’s sparse, spacey reimagining of the 1972 classic. Of course, the quartet, backlit by a galaxy of stars and laser lights, nailed those harmonies Sunday night, because that’s what LBT does. Every time. And with their inscrutable, idiosyncratic vocal blend, the group never fails at the task of taking an iconic song and making it their own. Did the Russians hack the votes for Vocal Group of the Year? It’s hard to explain how else these nominees went home empty-handed. A.G.

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Worst: Entertainer of the Year Field Is a Sausage Party

For a show that had more than a few standout performances from women, the ACM’s Entertainer of the Year category was noticeably male. With nary a female artist in sight, the category even prompted one of just a few politically tinged remarks from host Reba McEntire, who quipped, “Five men, no women? Looks like singles night at the Holiday Inn.” Deserving veterans and newcomers alike, including Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris and McEntire herself, each delivered show-stopping performances, making the imbalance that much more conspicuous. The real kicker, though, came later in the show, when it was announced that Miranda Lambert officially surpassed Brooks & Dunn’s record to become the most decorated artist in ACM history – if that isn’t the resumé of an Entertainer of the Year, we don’t know what is. B.M.

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Best: Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott Steps Out

Making her first major TV appearance since delivering twins, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott provided a deliciously dramatic return to the ACM Awards with a performance of “Heart Break.” Scott kicked it off singing solo into a backstage mirror before pulling off a quick costume change and stepping onstage with her two male bandmates, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood, walking up behind her. It was a moment worthy of show host Reba McEntire’s highly theatrical concert spectacles from the Nineties, which Scott watched as both of her parents played in McEntire’s band during that period. This Lady A performance was a big step out into the spotlight for Scott, who is often left out of the conversation when it comes to discussions on the current women of country. We’re thinking this performance will go a long way in helping correct that oversight. H.K.

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Best: Lauren Alaina Takes a Victory Lap

Lauren Alaina was onstage twice Sunday night, and she didn’t waste a moment of the opportunity – even though neither, on paper, was geared to be a starring performance. First up came her duet of “What Ifs” with Kane Brown, which could’ve flat-lined thanks to backing-track accompaniment instead of a live band. But Alaina, despite not being the featured artist on the song, took it by the scruff of the neck and used Brown as the anchor for her soaring vocal. Even Brown fought back a proud smile as he watched his old middle-school friend sing circles around the stage. Her return later for a solo rendition of her own “Doin’ Fine” was equally powerful, although all too short as she only sang a verse and chorus. But what could have been a footnote instead felt like a victory lap for the New Female Vocalist champ. J.G.

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