Rascal Flatts had barely left the stage at last night’s Eighth Annual ACM Honors — accompanied by none other than genuflecting quarterback Tim Tebow, who presented the group with an international award honoring their recent European tours — when host Jake Owen entered from stage right, flashed a grin at the sold-out audience and shouted, “Congrats to One Direction!”
It was a good-natured joke at Flatts’ expense — the trio signed their first record deal with Lyric Street in 1999, during Nashville’s own version of the boy band craze. But it also summed up the loose tone and camaraderie of the evening. Like a countryfied Golden Globes, the ACM Honors focused on informal speeches and rare performances, with Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium serving as the backdrop.
The event also shone a light on some of the lesser-known category winners from this past spring’s 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, giving as much airtime to those who typically operate behind the scenes — like session musician Rob McNelley, who closed out his acceptance speech for “Guitar Player of the Year” by rattling off his phone number for any potential employers in the audience — as to familiar faces like Carrie Underwood. The pregnant and particularly emotional superstar, looking radiant in a pink gown, accepted the Gene Weed Special Achievement Award in a rare, humbling display of unstoppable tears and unfinished sentences.
The highlights of the three-hour marathon show tended to be the musical performances, most of which consisted of younger(ish) artists paying tribute to older, legendary artists. Dwight Yoakam strummed his way through a medley of Buck Owens tunes, backed by a band that included pedal steel wiz Paul Franklin, who recently tipped his own hat to Owens by teaming up with Vince Gill for the Buck Owens/Merle Haggard tribute album Bakersfield. Will Hoge and Jack Ingram paid tribute to Kris Kristofferson with soulful performances of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” respectively. To kick off the night, Hunter Hayes took a break from his birthday festivities — the guy turned 23 yesterday — to honor Career Achievement Award winner Ronnie Milsap with a version of “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World,” tossing in a snippet of “Smoky Mountain Rain” for good measure.
Meanwhile, the Oak Ridge Boys harmonized, hand-clapped and oom pa-pa mow mow‘d their way through the group’s biggest single, “Elvira,” in honor of booking agent Paul Moore. The once-in-a-lifetime moment, however, came from the impromptu girl group of Kacey Musgraves, Kelly Clarkson and Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, who performed a medley of their own hits, all co-written by Songwriter of the Year Shane McAnally. Musgraves strapped on a spangled banjo during the ladies’ performance of “Merry Go ‘Round,” a move that made her and Tony Joe White — who wrung out nasty notes on his electric guitar during “Polk Salad Annie” later that evening — the only performers to play something other than the acoustic guitar.
Well, aside from Owen, who, with just the right amount of game-show host smarm and country boy charm, played the role of emcee to the hilt.