For its 50th anniversary, the ACM Awards went big. Really big. From staging the show at the colossal AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and using the hometown Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders to hand out the trophies, to enlisting pop stars like Christina Aguilera and Nick Jonas for country-pop mashups, the show was a supersized spectacle. At times, it came dangerously close to being consumed by its own girth, and even show hosts Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan seemed disoriented. But country's stadium stars Kenny Chesney and George Strait kept things moving along, with performances that played well on both the small screen and AT&T's grand stage. Under the shadow of the 50-year milestone, here are the 17 best and worst moments from the ACM Awards' golden anniversary.
Wielding a guitar given to him by Buck Owens, Garth Brooks went as big and bold as his legacy for this performance of "All-American Kid," bringing out a caravan of military servicemen and turning the stadium into a giant version of the red-white-and-blue. Martina McBride may have sung about "Independence Day," but Brooks made it truly feel like the Fourth of July, paying tribute to his home state on the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. — Marissa R. Moss
Luke Bryan noted early on that the tens of thousands packing the colossally cavernous AT&T Stadium set a Guinness World Record for largest-attended award show of all-time. For its 50th anniversary, the ACM wanted to go big, hence moving the show from Las Vegas to Texas. But ultimately it's ratings, not attendance, that matter and there's a reason why awards shows don't typically broadcast from football stadiums. Whether it was a joke evaporating into thin air, superstars appearing dwarfed on small-looking stages at the corners of the end zones, or presenters sounding like referees making first-down calls, the show was all space and no atmosphere, swallowed whole by the insurmountable size of the room. Add to that the constant distraction of cheers and screams echoing throughout the place. Even seasoned stadium-country vets looked intimidated as they tried to hit their marks traversing catwalks and such between multiple stages. A newcomer like Sam Hunt seemed lost as he made his way through the crowd to the stage, and it looked like camera crews were having a hard time following the performers as well, at times resulting in some unintentionally artistic choices of shots. The hide-and-seek game didn't end with the performances. Upon arriving onstage, award winners, not knowing where to look, were asking, "Where's the camera?" By night's end this had happened with almost the same frequency as the shout-outs to Jesus in the acceptance speeches that followed. Sometimes what happens in Vegas really should stay in Vegas. — Adam Gold
Haters gonna hate, but the country music community will always love — and always claim — Taylor Swift. When the two-time ACM Entertainer of the Year officially crossed over to pop with last year's 1989 album, her peers were quick to publicly support and defend her decision. "Somebody once told me that you truly see who a person is when you tell them something they don't want to hear. . . So to the country music community, when I told you that I had made a pop album and that I wanted to go explore other genres, you showed me who you are with the grace that you accepted that with," said Swift upon accepting one of the ACM's seven Milestone Award trophies. "I'm so happy that I learned to write songs in a town like Nashville, so grateful that I learned what hard work is from my heroes who are all sitting here, and I am so unbelievably proud that I learned to treat people with kindness and respect from country music." Haters gonna reconsider. — Beville Dunkerley
Dressed all in black and looking every bit the mature artists they are, Little Big Town provided one of the night's few truly transcendent performances. Singing the not-really-controversial "Girl Crush," the Vocal Group of the Year winners commanded the stage not with simulated flames, awkward dance moves or special guests, but with poise and grace. It didn't hurt, of course, that they were performing one of the best-written songs of the year, if not the decade. Even so, in lesser hands, the nuances of the lyrics would have been in danger of getting lost — credit LBT's Karen Fairchild for helping the message stay on the path. — Joseph Hudak
Normally, Blake Shelton saying "selfie" or "OMG" in any sentence, let alone rhyming the two in the same sentence, would be pretty cringe-inducing. But last night, after 25 minutes of the show went by without any jokes, it was a welcome bit of ham-fisted, screwball humor that lovably knuckle-headed co-hosts Shelton and Luke Bryan had pretty much perfected last year. Unfortunately, the rest of the three-and-a-half-hour broadcast lacked LOLs and was shockingly short on charisma, something both hosts have in spades. Perhaps last night's wooden showing was a testament to how much of a buzzkill the size of the event truly was. Shelton is a natural TV personality — case in point, Saturday Night Live. And Bryan's best asset is his often-unintentional hilariousness and inherent affability — just watch him try and keep his balance. Whether the pair was too intimidated by the vast, echoing spaciousness of the stadium to let loose and be themselves, or whether producers played this one safe and kept the co-hosts on too tight a leash, their talents were criminally underused. — A.G.
From the very first performance of the telecast — Eric Church playing unreleased live favorite "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag" — it was clear this wasn't going to be a singles du jour show. While many artists did in fact play their current release, some evoked country nostalgia with past hits. In the case of George Strait, he did both: treating the Lone Star State crowd to his wanted-man chestnut "All My Ex's Live in Texas" before premiering his new single "Let It Go." Later, Martina McBride dusted off her anthem "Independence Day," Jason Aldean trotted out "My Kinda Party" and Dierks Bentley eschewed his nominated "Drunk on a Plane" and "I Hold On" for the unreleased title track to Riser. In the end, it added up to a show playlist that was as unpredictable as an iPod on shuffle. — J.H.
"I hope I can be your Dean Dillon, because you're my George Strait," said Natalie Hemby to Miranda Lambert in the most awesomely inside-baseball moment of the show. Writers like Hemby usually don't get much spotlight outside of Nashville, but Lambert made sure to hand the mic over to her partner and friend to make a speech when their "Automatic" won Song of the Year, during which she busted out this sweet line referencing another one of country's classic artistic duos. It was also a nice treat to see such a behind-the-scenes force take center stage — even if she did seem a little bit terrified. — M.M.
A gross joke about Luke Bryan's "sticky fingers"? Check. A silly, staged pass? Check. Couple all that with an awkward comment referencing the New England Patriots' already passé "Deflate-gate" in the same breath as a double-entendre on "balls," and it's full-on cringe-worthy. Romo may be the king of AT&T Stadium on normal occasions, but Sunday night, the only thing deflated was that skit. — M.M.
After two hours of a lot of yelling, Rascal Flatts and Christina Aguilera heard our cries of "Make it stop!" The country trio's Joe Don Rooney strummed an acoustic guitar and Jay DeMarcus played soft piano next to the pop star as she belted a brand-new love song, "Shotgun," with heartfelt country soul, with the Flatts' Gary LeVox exquisitely complementing — but never overwhelming — her on vocals. (The song was written specifically for Aguilera's character on ABC's Nashville.) The foursome then raised the tempo with "Riot," as LeVox and Aguilera swapped lines, this time accompanied by a 12-person choir. The end of the performance turned into an octave-reaching contest between the two powerhouse singers, who proved their voices can truly fill a Texas-sized stadium. — B.D.
In keeping with the stadium feel, the Academy decided to stick everyone famous in a veritable "celebrity bleachers" section behind the stage — a good idea in theory, but who wants to see managers try to text on the sly while everyone is forced to stand like awkward pageant queens, terrified the camera might catch something? It felt more like being a "Blank Space"-esque stalker than getting an inside view. Artists are just that – artists – not stage décor, though the extra shots of Eric Church singing along to every number was a nice consolation price for the awkwardness. — M.M.
It would almost feel ridiculous to stage a country awards show in Texas and not have someone play "All My Ex's Live in Texas." But it's even better if you have George Strait himself sing his 1987 hit, coming out as strong as ever and proving why he's so worthy of the Milestone Award he took home – and that the traditional side of genre, without the help of shooting flames, shredding guitars and fuzzy feedback, can still sound pretty sweet. Ringing crisp and looking sharp, he played both his classic tune and a new song, "Let It Go," that romped just as hard as the golden oldie. — M.M.
Well that didn't take long. Only five years after retiring with a massive farewell tour, Brooks & Dunn reunited for their first televised performance in, well, five years. The boot-scootin' duo performed their 1996 chart topper "My Maria," the same song they busted out at the 2010 ACMs — "their last ever ACM performance as a duo," Reba said when introducing them then. Not that it's anything to complain about. The short wait meant Kix and Ronnie sounded sprightly as ever, not a spark of chemistry lost as they hammed it up and harmonized in style, hitting every high yodel in the sunny sing-along gem. — A.G.
At an awards show that tried touting "girl power," the choice to use Dallas Cheerleaders as ushers — who barely concealed their little red wagons in white booty shorts — made the whole thing feel like it pulled more from Miss Universe than Ms. magazine. As if the position of stage girl could be even more demeaning, the ACMs decided to take it up a notch by putting a part of football often frowned upon by feminists on full display — all while the NFL racks up a not-so-hot record with women of late. Thankfully there were performances like Reba's to even the balance a little, commanding the stage with two female musicians in tow. Still, while Dan + Shay, Sam Hunt, Cole Swindell and Thomas Rhett all preformed, there was zilch from country's new female faces like Kacey Musgraves or Maddie & Tae. In fact, there were probably more cheerleaders onstage than young women from the very genre we were supposed to be celebrating. At least they spared us a split-lift. — M.M.
On a night when several artists looked dazed and confused on the gigantic stadium stage, Reba still knows exactly where she belongs. The ACM Milestone Award recipient offered a powerful medley of "Is There Life Out There," "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" and "Fancy" before launching into "Going Out Like That," a sassy new single about getting back in the game. With her spot-on singing, country music should be grateful she never left in the first place. The singer's daughter-in-law, Kelly Clarkson ("and the rest of you can suck it!"), got it right — Reba helped "put the ACM Awards on the map." — Craig Shelburne
With the mammoth stage at AT&T Stadium threatening to swallow up some of Sunday night's performers, Kenny Chesney strutted about like he owned the mother. No doubt such ease and comfort comes from his endless summers of playing football stadiums around the country, and he dialed into that experience for his twofer of "Young" and new single "Wild Child." His was a command performance, full of typical Kenny cool and the renewed focus he gained from releasing his best album in years, The Big Revival. In short, just as he was during his tour kickoff in Nashville in March, dude was in the zone — and had us looking forward to his return to stadiums next month. — J.H.
One of the ways the ACMs distinguish themselves from the industry-voted CMA Awards in November is to allow fans to vote in the Entertainer and New Artist of the Year categories. In theory, it's a great idea: Give the people the power! But it can't help but turn the voting into a popularity contest, and a flawed one at that. Is New Artist champ Cole Swindell really more popular than the red-hot Sam Hunt right now? No disrespect to the "Ain't Worth the Whiskey" singer or his mentor, Luke Bryan, who was elected to his second Entertainer victory, but allowing two of the most coveted awards to be decided by voting free-for-alls threatens the show's cohesion. Is it an industry or a fan award show? Pick a side. — J.H.
Upon accepting her glimmering ACM Milestone Award, a breathless Miranda Lambert exclaimed, "I have no idea why I'm up here receiving this." That’s easy enough — the native Texan is the most-awarded female artist in ACM history and is still centered in the spotlight. Supported by her stellar road band, she delivered "Mama's Broken Heart" and "Little Red Wagon" to the rafters — without making the home audience feel like they were in the nosebleeds. She's the very definition of backyard swagger. In short, the dazzling performance made the first hour of the show seem like a dress rehearsal. — C.S.