This year’s 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards arrived with a pall cast over the show, as it was the first time the country music community convened in Las Vegas since the Route 91 Harvest festival. On October 1st, a gunman shot and killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more gathered at the festival from the window of his 32nd floor hotel room at the Mandalay Bay. For now, Route 91 is the deadliest mass shooting in United States history.
Jason Aldean, who was performing when the gunfire began, opened the ACM broadcast, standing onstage beneath a single spotlight and introducing the evening as a celebration of music. Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Thomas Rhett and Luke Bryan joined Aldean, with Bryan telling the audience, “For those of us who have experienced tragedy and unexpected loss, music helps us remember what really matters in life.”
That would be the show’s most significant mention of the shooting until its final minutes. Host Reba McEntire took the stage shortly after the opening tribute, attempting to bring more than a little levity to a sobered room with jokes that poked fun at past host duos Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley and Bryan and Blake Shelton: “I guess they finally figured out it only takes one woman to do the job of two men.” That McEntire would be chosen to host a 17th time is certainly a nod to her enduring influence (not to mention her wicked sense of humor), but, in light of this year’s circumstances, it also felt like a careful move to tap a trusted veteran for what would undoubtedly be a difficult gig.
McEntire also slyly gave the show one of its only sociopolitical moments. In her opening monologue, she nodded to the stacked Entertainer of the Year category, cracking, “Five men, no women? Looks like singles night at the Holiday Inn.” Later in the show, she joked that she’d been warned to not talk about “politics, drinking or breakups,” and, based on the evening’s antiseptic tone, everyone followed at least one third of those restrictions. Among the words never uttered was “gun,” despite some attendees donning the number “58” lapel pins to honor the 58 people killed at Route 91. Others sported “851” to remember the 851 injured at the festival.
Like the show’s dialogue, many of the night’s performances were similarly flaccid. Kenny Chesney, the show’s first performer, breezed lazily through his new song “Get Along,” a toothless ode to bumper-sticker unity. Thomas Rhett’s performance of “Marry Me,” with its faux abandoned building backdrop and dramatic string arrangement, attempted to convey far more gravitas than such a song demands. Blake Shelton offered a capable if forgettable rendition of “I Lived It.”
Some artists managed to find inspiration, however, like Dierks Bentley in his impassioned take on his latest single “Woman, Amen,” which featured photos of women of all stripes and ended with Bentley running offstage to embrace his wife Cassidy. Maren Morris took the Las Vegas theme to heart on “Rich,” performing in front of a giant, shimmering sign that wouldn’t look out of place on the Strip itself. Kane Brown and Lauren Alaina, who have known each other since middle school, shared what had to be a surreal moment when they performed “What Ifs,” with Alaina’s powerhouse vocals stealing the collaboration.
Carrie Underwood received a rabid standing ovation from the crowd after she performed her new song “Cry Pretty,” complete with arena-ready vocal acrobatics and painted-on glittery tears. The ACMs mark Underwood’s return to the stage for the first time since receiving nearly 50 stitches on her face following a tough fall in November. Miranda Lambert, who surpassed Brooks & Dunn to become the most decorated artist in ACM history, took a victory lap onstage with a bold performance of “Keeper of the Flame,” playing the song on a guitar autographed, appropriately, by Loretta Lynn. Little Big Town offered up an otherworldly cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” complete with lasers, spacey graphics and glittery suits galore.
Other performances landed somewhere in the middle. Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha tried for an awards show “moment” with their record-breaking collaboration “Meant to Be,” which felt disjointed at first but was buoyed by a spirited performance from a large, diverse choir by the second verse. Keith Urban delivered a fiery take on new song “Coming Home,” but, as in the song itself, collaborator Julia Michaels didn’t appear until the end of the performance.
One of the more peculiar elements of the show was a series of recurring “flashback” performances, which celebrated, seemingly arbitrarily, the music of 1993. Was it a nod to the current wave of Nineties nostalgia? A tactic to distract from the complexities of the current moment? Just a random idea cooked up in a marketing meeting? Hard to say, though it did yield a nice little performance of “Chattahoochee” from Alan Jackson and Jon Pardi.
As for the awards themselves, the first televised award of the night was a victory for Miranda Lambert, who won Song of the Year for her The Weight of These Wings track “Tin Man.” Chris Stapleton unsurprisingly won Album of the Year for From A Room: Volume 1, though he skipped the show to stay home with wife Morgane, who earlier gave birth to twin boys. Underdogs Old Dominion stunned everyone, themselves included, when they bested Little Big Town for Vocal Group of the Year. Jason Aldean won Entertainer of the Year, emotionally sharing in his acceptance speech, “To my Route 91 people, you guys are in our hearts always. I love you guys. And we love Las Vegas. Vegas strong, baby.”
Despite a flurry of performances and guest appearances, there was a distracting emptiness at the show’s core left by a sorely lacking acknowledgement of the events at Route 91. There were no tributes that addressed victims by name, showed their photographs or honored survivors. There was no mention of the first responders who located the shooter, attended to victims and helped get Las Vegas back on its feet. There was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, no connection made to the recent Parkland school shooting, which inspired the nationwide March for Our Lives, held just weeks ago and bringing together hundreds of thousands of Americans (including country artists like Little Big Town) to demand lawmakers take action to address gun violence. Instead, the only other mention of Route 91 was a short promotional video put together to highlight aid work done by ACM’s charity arm, Lifting Lives, in the wake of the shooting. But even that clip glossed over a tragedy of such magnitude.
Just days ago, ACM CEO Pete Fisher told Rolling Stone Country of the show’s plans to honor Route 91 victims, “If you have a heart, you’re going to need to bring a tissue … You’re going to see some very honest emotion come off that stage.” But the ACM’s avoidance of country’s own recent history made for a stilted, hollow viewing. Some may argue that the best way to move on from such a tragedy is to do exactly that – move on – and that’s what this show apparently tried to do. But watching the ACMs race to their conclusion, it was hard not to ask, “That’s it?”