The most anticipated moment of the 10th annual ACM Honors actually passed without controversy, as Miranda Lambert accepted the inaugural ACM Merle Haggard Spirit Award. Just before the event – held August 30th at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium – alt-country favorite Sturgill Simpson stoked fires with an uncompromising denouncement of the Academy of Country Music on Facebook, citing that the award merely exploited the legacy of Haggard, who died earlier this year. Simpson later clarified that his remarks were not aimed at Lambert.
Following an emotional rendition of “Misery and Gin,” Lambert gave a speech that evoked Haggard’s memory without making any direct references to the Simpson situation. “Merle was one of my heroes,” said Lambert. “He’s the reason I write songs, he changed my life so much.” Emmylou Harris, who introduced Lambert, deftly reminded the packed Ryman house that Haggard won 20 ACM Awards and was the organization’s first Entertainer of the Year winner.
The closest thing to controversy arrived with Jimmy Webb’s acceptance speech on the heels of The Band Perry’s performance of Webb’s lost-love opus, “MacArthur Park.” Addressing the issue of digital songwriter royalties, Webb declaring that songwriters “are not being fairly compensated for their work. I strongly urge people to stand up for our songwriters.” As if on cue, the audience rose to its collective feet.
The event also gave commendable up-front recognition of country trailblazers, too often overlooked in an era caught up in the present. Glen Campbell, currently battling Alzheimer’s, was honored with the Career Achievement Award while three distinct stylists, Tanya Tucker, The Statler Brothers and Crystal Gayle, received the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award. For their songwriting prowess, both Eddie Rabbitt and Jimmy Webb were chosen for the Poet’s Award.
Jason Aldean joined an august group by becoming only the seventh recipient of the ACM’s Triple Crown Award, given to an artist who has copped New Male/Female Vocalist of the Year, Male/Female Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year. “I used to watch the ACM [Awards] show at my house in Georgia,” Aldean recalled. “You didn’t have YouTube and all that back then, so it was huge.” Aldean blasted through a medley of several of his hits including “Tattoos on This Town.”
Also on the contemporary side, Keith Urban was selected for the Mae Boren Axton Award, recognizing years of service and dedication to the Academy of Country Music. “This means the world to me,” Keith told the audience. “I love this award because it transcends music.” Urban then displayed his soulful side with his performance of “Blue Ain’t Your Color.”
Outstanding performances dominated the show. “Burning House” singer Cam and pop star Alicia Keys nearly blew the Ryman roof off its rafters with their duet on “Girl Crush,” in tribute to Crystal Milestone Award winners Little Big Town. Chris Young and the duo of Dan + Shay rendered a faithful version of The Statler Brothers’ classic slacker anthem “Flowers on the Wall,” which still resonates after 50-plus years. Kelsea Ballerini, appropriately dressed in blue, delivered a solid rendition of Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”
The best was saved for last with an all-star tribute to Glen Campbell featuring Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley and Toby Keith. Their medley honored Campbell with “Southern Nights,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Rhinestone Cowboy” and others. Campbell’s wife Kim, along with daughter Ashley and son Shannon, accepted his honor by noting that, “Glen would be so so humbled, honored and blessed.”
Presented by the Academy of Country Music, the ACM Honors celebrates special honorees and off-camera winners from the 51st ACM Awards held this past April. The intimate event will air on television for the first time Friday, September 9th, on CBS.