The 54th ACM Awards on Sunday night felt like a tug of war between country’s old-school traditions and its progressive future, resulting in some truly engaging performances. Others, however, struggled to find their footing, while some moments left us with head-scratching questions — like why were two of country and Americana’s most talented musicians performing in near obscurity? And why wasn’t Kacey Musgraves’ music heard, either live or on tape? Here’s the 13 best, worst and WTF things we witnessed.
Best: Luke Combs Is Mr. Versatile
Luke Combs was one of just a select few performers (George Strait, Ashley McBryde, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood) to perform multiple times on Sunday evening. In both instances, Combs showed why he’s one of the genre’s most promising young voices, displaying his versatility as he alternated between sensitive balladry during his stripped down, Amanda Shires-assisted rendition of “Beautiful Crazy” shortly before belting out a loose, thrilling take of 1991’s “Brand New Man” alongside Brooks & Dunn. Though he didn’t win any on-screen awards, Combs’ two-for-two success left him with one of the impressions of the night. J.B.
Worst: Charlie Worsham, Amanda Shires Are Heard, Barely Seen
It was a superb treat to have two of Nashville’s finest artists — Amanda Shires and Charlie Worsham — unexpectedly take the stage last night, alongside Luke Combs and Keith Urban, respectively. Playing fiddle for Combs’ performance of “Beautiful Crazy,” Shires helped transform the song with her lyrical playing while Worsham, fresh from filling out the house band at last week’s Loretta Lynn birthday tribute, added some masterful guitar to Urban’s rendition of Foy Vance’s “Burden.” It was a perfect opportunity to introduce both Shires and Worsham to even larger audiences, but there was just one problem: the ACMs didn’t bother to announce either of them. As a member of the Highwomen with performers Brandi Carlile and Maren Morris (and ACM winner Natalie Hemby) and winner of 2017’s Emerging Artist of the Year at 2017’s Americana Honors & Awards, it is an understatement to say that Shires deserved to be introduced right alongside Combs. Same for Worsham, who should have been nominated for an ACM himself for 2017’s Beginning of Things. It was thrilling to see and hear them in the fold last night (well, almost see them — Worsham was mostly in the shadows), but the ACMs should have given them the acknowledgement they deserve. M.M.
WTF: Eric Church’s Hooded Choir
Eric Church and Ashley McBryde teaming up to sing-speak Church’s political allegory “The Snake” was one of the ballsiest and best performances of the ACMs. Here were two of country music’s most important songwriters trading lines about deceit, divisiveness and temptation in a typically safe-as-milk forum, with Church relishing the devilish delivery of his Garden of Eden line: “I bet you my rattle against your copper that the bitch takes the apple again.” Still, we couldn’t help but purge visions of Spinal Tap when a hooded choir (Were they druids? Monks? Sorcerers?) materialized to lend some ominous backing vocals at song’s end. To quote Tap’s “Stonehenge,” no one knows who they were or what they were doing. J.H.
Best: Brandi Carlile Makes Her ACMs Debut
It’s already been a triumphant year for Brandi Carlile, who wowed viewers with her performance of “The Joke” at the 61st annual Grammy Awards back in February. No stranger to unorthodox performances, Dierks Bentley seemed to want to prolong Carlile’s victory lap, inviting her to join him for a performance of their 2018 The Mountain deep cut “Travelin’ Light.” Carlile — who was also spotted joyfully singing along to Brooks & Dunn’s “Brand New Man” — served as the perfect counterpoint to Bentley, framing his gruff drawl with her flawless vocal acrobatics. With forthcoming projects like the Highwomen and production work for Tanya Tucker, this could be Carlile’s first ACM Awards of many. B.M.
Best: Dan + Shay Win Big, Play Nice
Sometimes, the nice, hard-working guys win one. Or, in this case, three. Following a monster year that contained at least one monster hit in “Tequila,” the duo of Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney cleaned up in the first half of the ACM Awards. “Tequila,” which is still hovering near the top of the Hot Country Songs chart a full year later, was named Song and Single of the Year, while Dan + Shay managed to edge out their friendly competition Brothers Osborne to win their first ACM Vocal Duo of the Year honor. Not to belabor the whole “nice” thing, but Smyers actually took time during one of his speeches to thank by name all the session musicians who helped make “Tequila” sound so potent. Now tell us the last time you heard another performer do that. J.F.
Worst: Luke Bryan’s Oversized “Boots”
Despite simpleton lyrics like “doors need shutting,” Luke Bryan’s latest single “Knockin’ Boots” isn’t terrible. In fact, it’s rather appealing, thanks to its inherent goofiness. The same can be said of Bryan’s charm, but his performance went overboard with Wayne Newton-like smarm. Drawing the unfortunate slot of following Miranda Lambert’s exciting medley of her hits, Bryan mugged his way through “Knockin’ Boots,” embracing a performing style that seemed to consist of “sing line, smile big, repeat.” Or as Woody Allen preached in Broadway Danny Rose: “Star Smile Strong.” Such grand grins and gestures usually work for TV, but in this case, Bryan’s “Boots” were too big. J.H.
Best: Little Big Town Champion the Daughters
Nashville has made some puddle-deep attempts to offer their own version of the “female empowerment” anthem and, so far, generally missed the mark, Keith Urban’s “Female” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Women” among the worst offenders. But that tide is changing: first with Maren Morris’ “Girl” and now Little Big Town’s “Daughters,” which the quartet performed for the first time last night surrounded by a young girl’s dance troupe. Full of potent lines that not only challenge the societal norms women are expected to conform to — especially at awards shows like the ACMs — it was an extremely emotional performance that turned even more powerful when the lyrics pivoted from third person to Karen Fairchild singing about herself. “Pose like a trophy on a shelf,” she sang, visibly shaken. “And dream for everyone but not myself.” Country radio probably won’t get onboard to play a song like “Daughters,” but this is one that daughters need to hear the most. M.M.
Best: Ashley McBryde’s Wow Moment
Years ago, Ashley McBryde was in high school back in Mammoth Springs, Arkansas, being told by her teacher that her dreams to be a singer-songwriter would never come to fruition. Last night, she played the song she wrote about that experience, “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” on the stage of the ACMs, as the winner of New Female Artist of the Year. Armed only with her acoustic guitar and pristine vocals, she stunned the audience into a standing ovation, ending the moment by looking out into the crowd and mouthing “wow.” Back at ya, McBryde. M.M.
Worst: Kacey Musgraves Doesn’t Sing
A press release that went out late Sunday night made note of the fact that Kacey Musgraves was only the third artist in history to win Album of the Year at the CMA Awards, the Grammys and then the ACM Awards in one year, as she now has with Golden Hour — the previous one was Taylor Swift, if that tells you anything. So it was baffling to see Musgraves clapping politely in the audience or coming up onstage to accept her awards, but never actually getting to sing one of the songs that got her there. It’s a big bucket of frustrating questions no matter how you look at it. If the ACM didn’t offer her a spot, are they actually insane? If the ACM did offer her a spot — which one has to assume was the case — and she refused, why? Heck, give her a full half-hour to tap dance or tell jokes or host a crossover episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race if that’s what she wanted to do. Surely we would have made it through the evening just fine with only two George Strait performances (sorry, King). J.F.
WTF: Kacey and Chris’s Great Music Mystery
Just as perplexing as why Musgraves didn’t perform was why her actual recorded music went unplayed during the show. When most nominees were announced during the broadcast, a brief clip of their music would be heard as the camera panned over the artists — ”Tequila” for Dan + Shay, “Heaven by Kane Brown,” etc. But generic filler music played when Musgraves and Stapleton’s names were announced, leaving many wondering why. A label disagreement about rights? A beats per minute mismatch? Something else? As of press time, reps for both the ACMs, Musgraves and the artists’ shared label home did not respond for a request for comment. J.B.
Worst: The Opening Commercial, er, Performance
For a show that billed itself as chock full of notable collaborations, the opening number was a letdown. While Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean offered a capable take on their collab “Can’t Hide Red,” the performance felt tepid in comparison to more inventive openers typical of past awards shows. The choice of performers was a bit suspect, too, given that this year the ACMs announced a diversity task force — it would have been a lay-up for the show to get a little gutsy with its talent, perhaps with Kane Brown and Khalid’s of-the-moment cross-genre collaboration, or Eric Church and beloved newcomer Ashley McBryde’s inspired duet on “The Snake.” That Tyler Hubbard ended the performance by plugging the duo’s Old Camp Whiskey was bitter icing on a bland cake. B.M.
Best: Miranda Lambert’s Fiery Medley
The first hour of the ACM Awards started on the slow side, as many of the show’s more highly touted performances were saved for the end. Thank goodness for Miranda Lambert, then, who livened things up early on with an impressive medley of songs from her two-decade career. Starting with 2005’s “Kerosene,” Lambert burned through early cuts and radio hits alike for a medley that showcased both her vocal chops and her longevity. She ended her set with a triumphant take on Platinum‘s “Little Red Wagon,” sneaking in the ad-libbed lyric, “I got the hell out of Oklahoma.” It was a spot-on performance from one of the genre’s finest, and further proof that Lambert deserved an Entertainer of the Year nod. B.M.
Best: Reba Roasts the Bros
“I’m a woman in the music business and I don’t have time to be tired,” Reba McEntire quipped early on in her opening monologue. Hosting the ACM Awards for a 16th time, country’s grand dame didn’t hold her tongue when it came to the struggles of women in the male-dominated country music industry. “Did you know it snowed in Las Vegas just a few weeks ago?” she asked the crowd. “It was so cold it froze us women out of Entertainer of the Year.” Zing! It may have been a good-natured way to address the elephant in the room, but there’s little doubt it made some of the dudes squirm. J.H.