The 51st annual Academy of Country Music Awards saw a ferocious Carrie Underwood on the drums, Little Big Town bringing in the funk and Eric Church throwing a rock and roll curveball. Here's the best and worst from country music's Las Vegas extravaganza.
While cross-genre collaborations at these award shows tend to come off as awkward in practice as they do on paper, Little Big Town tapping Trombone Shorty for a greasy Nawlins-style take on the funky "Stay All Night" was a bona fide show-stopper, dripping with joy and authenticity. The pairing felt organic, and was an outright stand-out alongside a host of Top 40-aiming country-pop performances stiffened by processed beats and backing tracks. It was also a major spotlight moment for LBT's oft-overshadowed Jimi Westbrook, who dug in and let out his inner R&B monster, garnering a standing ovation in the process.
There was a recurring theme of artists debuting new singles on the ACM Awards, but nobody went bigger than Carrie Underwood and her performance of "Church Bells." With spectacular production worthy of the Las Vegas setting, Underwood annexed the entirety of MGM Grand Garden Arena's stages for a dramatic performance that somehow blended gothic gloom and steampunk with the drum solo at an Imagine Dragons concert. Through it all Underwood, wearing an architectural dress that probably required a tetanus shot, sang like such a champ that even Miranda Lambert felt compelled to acknowledge it during her acceptance speech for Female Vocalist of the Year.
Going back to Vegas basics, it would be pretty hard to not top last year's clumsy atmosphere-killer at AT&T Stadium. Even still, trading out Blake Shelton — who co-hosted the broadcast for the last four years — for naturally funny Dierks Bentley was a good call. See, when it comes prom-king jocks, returning emcee Luke Bryan and Bentley are the kind of bros who will buddy up to nerds for homework help and maybe even sneak 'em a beer too. Shelton is the guy who'd give a geek a swirly. That much was made clear in the first gag of the night, when Shelton jacked Bentley's mic and rushed the stage to help Bryan sing his show-opening new single, "Huntin', Fishin' and Lovin' Every Day." Sure, save for Shelton's parting words — wishing Bentley luck and calling Bryan a "dumbass" — and some lighthearted back and forth between the two hosts, the opening segment was short on Brad-and-Carrie-worthy big disses (Luke and Dierks are nice guys!), but the pair clearly had chemistry when jesting about Tim McGraw naming his biceps "Humble" and "Kind" or leading an arena-wide suck-up to Chris Stapleton.
Here's the thing about boob jokes and Dolly Parton and Katy Perry. When it comes to the twin titans of country and pop, it's best to let the women themselves crack wise about their famous assets. When Perry pulled back her shoulders and thrust out her bust while pointing out that she and Dolly have "some of the biggest. . . hits in our fields" it was sly and cute. When Parton herself noted the shiny, décolletage-baring "coat of many colors" she was wearing, she joked it was because "I had to do something to overcome all those long-legged women I'm having to work with around here." But when poor co-host Dierks Bentley drew the short straw and was made by way of the teleprompter to drift into a pretend reverie and quip of the performance, "What a great pair. . . pairing!" it felt forced, flat, and unbecoming of the normally charming singer-songwriter.
When it comes to arena-rockified country in 2016, Keith Urban rocking out in a ring of KISS-style pyro while shredding on a banjo kind of says it all. But the thing about Urban's performance of his characteristically wide-open, anthemic new single "Wasted Time" was that the banjo wasn't a prop — he actually played the fire out of it, filling the tune with the kind of jangle he typically reserves for a Telecaster and turning in a plucky slide solo that fit right in.
The hard-rocking guy in the aviators isn't necessarily the person who comes to mind for a sensitive tribute, but Eric Church's marvelous performance of "Record Year" turned out to be one of the ACM Awards' most unexpectedly touching moments. Seamlessly transitioning away from his own song, Church and the "Mr. Misunderstood" kid engaged in a turntable battle that honored recently departed rockers David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots and Glenn Frey of the Eagles with passages of their hits. It was a note-perfect way to drive home the message of Church's song: in times of loss and heartbreak, music will lift you up.
Miranda Lambert tackled ZZ Top's "Tush" more than two dozen times during her Certified Platinum Tour, but never with the added firepower of Keith Urban and Billy Gibbons, whose dueling guitars received nearly as much ACM airtime as Lambert's voice. Lined up across the lip of the stage, the three presented themselves as a supergroup of equals. The only other performance to draw such a close connection between singers and their bands was Chris Stapleton's "Fire Away," making "Tush" less of a showcase for the Entertainer of the Year nominee and more of a gloriously tag-teamed tribute to getting laid.
Katy Perry bowed down to Dolly Parton towards their end of their enchanting medley of "Coat of Many Colors," "Jolene" and "9 to 5" — in what was a genuine, not-just-for-the-cameras awestruck moment. Perry's love and appreciation for the country music treasure that is Dolly Parton was evident throughout the night (and not just reflected by her flashy Western wear), hopefully silencing naysayers of their pairing. Their duets were equally poignant and playful, as the emotional cracks in their voices on "Coat" transitioned into a vocally spectacular, passionate "Jolene" and finally into some literal ass-slapping with "9 to 5." Additional kudos to the ACM for giving Parton — the biggest global superstar in the room — so much air time, and for honoring her Coat of Many Colors film with the Tex Ritter award.
Kelsea Ballerini proved herself worthy of her New Female Vocalist trophy, turning in a fine wind-in-hair performance of the sassy "Love Me Like You Mean It" and "Peter Pan," her ode to giving up on dating deadbeat man-children.Jonas looked nervous as he took center stage and tried to do his best John Mayer, delivering a painfully stiff guitar solo that soured more than it soared — even missing a few notes. But we blame this more on the ACMs for bringing in Jonas to boost ratings. Ballerini more than holds her own as a performer. . . and country music recruiter.
When "Nobody to Blame" won Song of the Year, Chris Stapleton was joined onstage by his winning co-writers Barry Bales and Ronnie Bowman. In what may have been the single most country moment of the night, Bowman, wearing an irrepressible grin, reminisced about growing up in a mobile home with his mother and how, when he was 14, she turned to him and asked, "Son, would you write me a song?’ And I went back there and did that and I've been doing that ever since thanks to my mama. She's passed away, Hazel Bowman." We think Hazel would be very, very proud.
Flash and costume changes and dance moves are all well and good but sometimes the best performances are the quietest ones. Cam proved this with a poignant and rivetingly still performance of her melancholy hit "Burning House." The elegance of the impressionistic tune was highlighted by a string trio and the voices of her five member band, who bolstered Cam's own lovely and tremulous vocals, which were squarely front and center as she sang her wistful tune, an oasis of calm.
In addition to the four awards he won during the show, Chris Stapleton also dominated the opening monologue by Luke Bryan and his new co-host, Dierks Bentley. "He's become a huge superstar which means everyone in Nashville is trying to take credit for his success," said Bryan of the bearded singer-songwriter. The parade of artists who have some connection to Stapleton each staked their claim, popping up in the audience, microphone in hand. Bentley noted that Stapleton sang on his Riser album. Bryan pointed out that Stapleton co-wrote his hit, "Drink a Beer." Jason Aldean piped in that he recorded a Stapleton number on his last album and claimed, "I was a fan of him before he had the beard and was playing in a rock and roll band." Thomas Rhett chimed in, "I think I gave Stapleton the boost he needed when I cut 'Crash and Burn.'" Charles Kelley's bid came in the form of being the most current Stapleton-adjacent artist since he was about to sing the Stapleton co-write, "Lonely Girl" from his new solo album on the telecast. And finally, Carrie Underwood displayed the bedazzled Stapleton t-shirt she claimed she bought in 1978 in support of the Kentucky native. (Stapleton was born in 1978.) It was a comical moment that paid tribute to his deserved recent success, but there was also a sweetness to it as it amplified the love that the more famous artists have long had for the newly-minted star who has hundreds of songwriting and backing vocal credits to his increasingly well-known name.
In one of the more manufactured moments of the evening, Florida Georgia Line sang along to a version of "Confession" that bordered on glorified karaoke. Drum loops and other pre-recorded tracks made the duo's band seem largely useless — an impression that was emphasized by the stage plot, which hid those musicians behind fake trees — while a heavy coat of AutoTuning turned Tyler Hubbard's voice into the bro-country equivalent of the iPhone's Siri. There was simply no room for error in Florida Georgia Line's attempt to sound perfect, and the result was a digitized snoozefest.
First Von Miller went to Disneyworld. Then he came to the ACMs, ending his Super Bowl victory tour by presenting in a skulls-and-roses blazer, a 10-gallon hat and what appeared to be the largest cowboy boots of the telecast. "I’m here because I’m a Texan, a fan of country music and my Super Bowl ring is the flashiest ring in all of Las Vegas,” he told the crowd. The zinger was almost as good as the wardrobe. Bring Von back for 2017 — even if Denver doesn’t make it past the conference championship game.
While there were several notable cross-genre collaborations throughout the night, one of the best match-ups from a pure vocals standpoint came with the pairing of Chris Young and Cassadee Pope on their hit single, "Think of You." The former Voice victor and the classically trained Young matched each other note for note on the chugging, broken-hearted power ballad, their voices intertwining with hand-in-glove precision. The stage rained sparks at the end of the song but all the firepower necessary was already evident.