It’s a tale as old as time: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. After two years of graceful, measured, and intimate pandemic-era awards shows in Nashville, the Academy of Country Music Awards returned to their usual home of Las Vegas and doubled down on the huge, choosing the cavernous Allegiant Stadium to stage country music’s first streaming-only awards show on Prime Video.
Unfortunately, the result was a show that both looked and felt empty.
Longtime viewers of the ACM Awards might recall that for the milestone 50th anniversary in 2015, the ACMs eschewed their longtime home of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Vegas for the massive AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The show was still airing on CBS then and the sound on TV was strangely small and echoey, with few of the winners knowing exactly where to look when handed their awards. Monday night at Allegiant Stadium, the sound on Prime Video was strangely small and echoey, and winners still didn’t know where to look. But this time, there were no commercials.
Initially, the idea of a tight, compact ACM Awards uninterrupted by commercial breaks sounded like a good thing: Two hours to be duly entertained before turning in at a reasonable hour on a school night. Plus, the reliably great Dolly Parton was hosting, alongside a couple of hot young stars in Jimmie Allen and Gabby Barrett.
But the pacing was frenetic. When the production wasn’t rushing from one segment to the next, it was teeing up a synergistic preview of some upcoming Prime Video show starring Chris Pratt in order to give stagehands a chance to reset one of the stadium’s three stages.
Yet the performances often came across as clipped. For the entire first 15 minutes of actual music, it seemed as if no one sang a complete song. Co-hosts Allen and Barrett steamrolled through two numbers with Vegas in their titles (“Viva Las Vegas,” “Let’s Go to Vegas”), Walker Hayes shoe-horned “AA” in before his viral hit “Fancy Like,” and Eric Church, one of country music’s best entertainers, was saddled with a medley that found him singing about five seconds of half the hits in his catalog. While the intent was to re-create Church’s stunning one-man medley in Nashville in 2019 with a full band, it sounded like someone previewing but not purchasing songs on the iTunes store circa 2005.
Chris Stapleton’s fire-and-brimstone delivery of “Watch You Burn,” complete with a choir and the singer’s fierce guitar licks, was an early high point, but even that performance was in danger of being swallowed up by the stadium. Inexplicably, the upper decks of Allegiant, the home of the Las Vegas Raiders, were entirely devoid of fans, a fact the cameras didn’t attempt to hide.
At least one performance felt bloated, however. Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood’s duet of “If I Didn’t Love You” incorporated the sharpest of Vegas cheese, with Aldean rising out of the floor in front of a piano and Underwood descending onto the stage in a floating hoop.
But let’s focus on the good. Dolly Parton went full Dolly, dishing out bon mots like “a disco ball fell right on me” when describing her over-the-top mirrored couture jumpsuit or joking about her age by recalling how “Davy Crockett took me to my high school prom.” She was also first out of the gate to acknowledge Russia’s war on Ukraine, dedicating the show to the people under siege. “Pray for peace around this crazy old world,” she said. Later, Old Dominion’s Matt Ramsey echoed that sentiment, recognizing his privilege and that of his peers: “We’re in this beautiful bubble where every person whose name is mentioned has fought for their dreams, but people are fighting for their lives right now.”
There were also some great performances in spite of the less-than-ideal setup. Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde gave a master class in melodrama with “Never Wanted to Be that Girl,” paring the instrumentation back to almost nothing and giving some engrossing narrative to go along with their sublime vocals. Walker Hayes exuded goofy dad charm during his ambitious stroll around the stadium for “AA” and “Fancy Like.” And Parmalee, grouped with Blanco Brown and Brooke Eden, actually sounded joyful and exuberant on “Just the Way.”
Brothers Osborne were typically superb, dishing out some riffage in matching glow-in-the-dark suits for the brawny “Skeletons” and backing up future star Brittney Spencer for a show-closing cover of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin.” Breland, the face of a new Amazon Music promotion, sang his face off on “Praise the Lord.” And Kelly Clarkson slayed with a stunning rendition of Dolly’s “I Will Always Love You.” It was enough to make Dolly herself a little emotional. “I know Whitney is smiling down on us tonight,” she said.
As far as the actual awards, Lainey Wilson, whose Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ was a 2021 favorite ‘round these parts, had a big night. She won three awards, including Song of the Year for “Things a Man Oughta Know.” Carly Pearce, who’s been on an all-world run since putting out her album 29, was named Female Artist of the Year. Chris Stapleton won Male Vocalist and modeled good, supportive parenting by bringing his blue-haired kid to the ACMs for his birthday. The top prize of Entertainer of the Year went to Miranda Lambert, her first ever win in the category. Alas, she wasn’t there to collect it.
And Morgan Wallen, apparently no longer an industry pariah, won Album of the Year for Dangerous: The Double Album. After being barred from last year’s show following the racial slur incident, he was there to collect his trophy in person, proving a country music ban lasts about, oh, 12 months.
The 57th ACM Awards claimed history by being the “first major awards show to livestream exclusively,” a milestone that hints at country music’s courtship of younger fans and viewers. But what’s interesting is how the ACMs turned away from what they learned in 2020 and 2021, when they dispensed with the idea of live TV and came up with productions that were keenly aware of what was going on in the outside world. This time, by trading human connection for awkward spectacle, they came up short.