If the CMA Awards were Nashville's biggest night, this year's ACMs were — as usual — pure Vegas, with Brad Paisley performing poolside, Florida Georgia Line playing in front of disconcertingly gigantic fireballs, Shakira dueting with Blake Shelton and Guy Fieri awkwardly attempting to promote his latest venture. Here are 13 of the show's best and, yes, worst moments. By Beville Dunkerley and Nick Murray
The ceremony's repeated championing of live music was sus from the beginning, particularly in a moment when country itself is more synthesized than ever, but that rhetoric took a turn for the predictable when Blake Shelton, onstage with Luke Bryan to open the show, told the crowd that the alternative was Britney Spears at Planet Hollywood. Amazingly, as their introduction continued, their targets became even easier, the hosts concluding with a "how much the world has changed in a decade" bit that poked fun at both their wives and Justin Bieber.
Las Vegas got about as much screen time as any of the nominees, the show traveling down the strip for performances outside the MGM Grand Garden Arena. For the live debut of his new single, "River Bank," Brad Paisley played poolside to a sea of bikini-clad fans. The teetotalling family man managed to intoxicate with slick guitar skills and a clever storyline of "laughing all the way to the river bank." The simultaneous broadcast at the ACM Fan Jam also brought the party outside, with high-energy performances by Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, among others.
Little Big Town's 2012 Tornado might be Nashville's best Fleetwood Mac tribute in recent memory — check the harmonies of the record's second half — but last night it was Lady Antebellum who got to perform with Stevie Nicks. On a stage in the middle of the crowd, the trio and their special guest opened with "Golden," a cut off Lady A's recent album of the the same name, before jumping into a performance of "Rhiannon" — again, check the harmonies — that provided an obvious highlight.
Early on, Best Vocal Duo winners Florida Georgia Line gave a performance of "Stay," their last single, that was so post-grunge you almost wondered if Nashville ignored Aaron Lewis' recent country turn only to hide the influence his former band had on the current generation of young male stars (See also: Gilbert, Brantley). Later, their take on current single "This Is How We Roll" provided everything the earlier one had been missing. Namely: energy, wit, flair, Luke Bryan and a handful of BMX riders doing backflips while fireballs exploded in the background.
Over the past few years, Dick Clark Productions has more than doubled its value by producing award shows that emphasize the show over the awards, and this meant that on last night’s broadcast, not a single one was handed out in the entire first hour. This, in turn, meant more pool-side performances and less acceptance speeches awkwardly cut short, more Taylor Swift dancing and less Taylor Swift reaction shots, and more country artists playing their hits and less country artists congratulating themselves for making them. It's hard to imagine anyone complaining.
In one of the toughest and most unpredictable categories of the night, the Band Perry took home their first win for Group of the Year. "This is a mountaintop moment in the life of the Band Perry," said lead singer Kimberly Perry upon accepting the award. "We appreciate it so very much because we started at the bottom of the mountain 15 years ago. Our grandfather gave us some great advice — especially when there were more people on the stage than were out in the crowd listening — he'd always say, 'This ain't no hill for a climber.' We accept this for the climbers tonight." (Additional props to the songstress for finally ditching the girl-next-door look and showing her sexy side.)
During a time when so-called "bro country" is polarizing the genre, Keith Urban continues to prove that in country music, rock & roll is here to stay. The Aussie artist rocked his latest hit, "Even the Stars Fall 4 U," sticking to what he does best: crossover-worthy love songs with killer guitar solos. His supersonic licks coupled with spot-on vocals reminded us why he's been nominated for ACM Male Vocalist of the Year nine times — and a little miffed that he's only won it twice.
Surprisingly underrated — even overlooked — at the time of its release, Jason Aldean’s Night Train continues to produce hits. The latest, "When She Says Baby," updates Petty’s "Here Comes My Girl" for the compressed guitars era, and while the Male Vocalist of the Year’s performance of it was nothing flashy, it remained a highlight nonetheless. "Water Tower" next, please.
Truck beds, tight jeans, cold beer and. . . Guy Fieri? The Food Network personality wouldn't have been such a frosted-tipped fish out of water if he had used his 30 seconds of airtime to actually talk about the country music charity he was introducing instead of plugging his new Sin City restaurant. Other head-scratching cameos included Insider host Thea Andrews, Entertainment Tonight host Nancy O'Dell and actor/rapper/Grammy host/"Accidental Racist" LL Cool J.
There's an old saying in country music, "It all starts with a song," and the show's producers took that to heart. Many performances forwent bells and whistles, instead letting lyrics take center stage. Lee Brice's Song of the Year-winning hit, "I Drive Your Truck," was performed with nothing but a guitar and raw emotion. George Strait's "I Got a Car" was accompanied only by a scenic video behind the icon and Lady Antebellum's stage only needed Stevie Nicks.
Blame the people for a somewhat bizarre win in the New Artist of the Year category. While Album of the Year winner Kacey Musgraves was also in the initial group of eight nominees, fans (and a bunch of music industry interns, we're guessing) shut out the woman who should have been the frontrunner in an online vote that whittled the pool down to Brett Eldredge, Justin Moore and Kip Moore. New artist? He is a proven hitmaker, sure, but the former Moore's first single came out six years ago. Even he cracked a joke about his win being a bit too long time coming.
It's going to be hard to top Merle Haggard's 77th birthday. Among the country legend's gifts: the ACM's Crystal Milestone Award, a serenade by Miranda Lambert and George Strait and thousands of fans singing a "Happy Birthday" led by Garth Brooks. Lambert and Strait's voices blended beautifully on two of the Hag's classics, "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" and "The Bottle Let Me Down," in a seemingly effortless performance made easier by the fact that they've sung those songs a million times.
"I Drive Your Truck" for Best Song, Same Trailer, Different Park for Best Album, Jason Aldean for Best Male Vocalist and Miranda Lambert for Best Female — most of these were fairly obvious, but they were satisfying choices regardless. And while even the hosts could agree that George Strait's night-capping Entertainer of the Year trophy was a legacy award more than anything else — "Our hero won!" Shelton shouted when he returned to the stage — Strait's last album was his best in years, and here the voters' milquetoast deference to tradition was fitting tribute to a man who built his career off a similar stance. (Read more about the night's winners here.)