This year has been one long succession of bewildering events, so there was no way the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards weren’t going to feel oh-so-2020. Already rescheduled from its original April date due to Covid-19 and converted to a virtual, audience-free event in Nashville for the first-time ever, the ACMs leaned into the strange with another first: a tie between Thomas Rhett and Carrie Underwood for the night’s top prize, Entertainer of the Year.
“What is happening right now?” asked Thomas Rhett, which is a pretty darn good question, anyway you slice it. The night marked his first win in the Entertainer category and Underwood’s third, making her the only female artist to win Entertainer three times (she won before in 2008 and 2009).
With performances and presentations taking place at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Bluebird Cafe, and Grand Ole Opry House, the ACM Awards attempted to answer the question of how one stages a country awards show in the age of Covid? With two more country awards shows scheduled between now and early November (the CMT Awards and the CMA Awards), the rescheduled ACMs could have been the sacrificial pancake in the short stack. Instead, it succeeded, thanks to a willingness to accept our current normal.
While three of the guys in Old Dominion were the night’s top winners with three awards each, Luke Combs collected a couple of the big prizes, earning an Album of the Year trophy for What You See Is What You Get and one for Male Artist of the Year. He also sang “Better Together” and made some U.S. armed forces veterans very happy by presenting them with a truckload of guitars in a pre-taped segment. (As it turns out, much of the three-hour show was prerecorded.)
Combs was present for the show opening, which featured all five of the Entertainer of the Year nominees doing a medley of their hits. Luke Bryan sang “Rain Is a Good Thing,” Eric Church delivered a solo “Drink in My Hand,” Rhett performed “It Goes Like This” at the Ryman, Combs sang “When It Rains It Pours” at the Bluebird, and Underwood closed it out with “Before He Cheats.” It was a charge to see entertainers actually sing with a band again — until the weirdness of the year came screaming back anytime a propulsive performance ended with dead silence instead of applause.
The ascension of Combs coincided with the diminished presence of the most recent generation of male superstars. Jason Aldean was nowhere to be found, while Luke Bryan smiled his way through the charming-enough Kenny Chesney homage “One Margarita,” dreaming of a beach somewhere far away like the rest of us. Urban, though he did an admirable job hosting, had a seemingly pantomimed performance of “One Too Many” with Pink.
Old Dominion and Dan + Shay are the dominant vocal group and duo, respectively, in country music right now. The former performed a medley of their songs and accepted a couple of awards while very responsibly wearing their protective masks to give acceptance speeches, while the latter brought home another Vocal Duo of the Year honor and sang “I Should Probably Go to Bed.” Previous Vocal Duo of the Year winners Florida Georgia Line added to the year’s all-out bizarreness with their performance of “I Love My Country,” during which an injured Tyler Hubbard rolled around the stage on a knee scooter. This year sucks, so why try to hide it? Instead, FGL offered a fun alternative to screaming into one’s pillow.
As usual, women did much of the heavy lifting. Miranda Lambert, joined by her co-writers Luke Dick and Natalie Hemby, sang her hit “Bluebird” at the Bluebird Cafe. While it was a little on the nose, it’s one of those songs that taps into the extra reserves of resilience we all need to summon right now. It’s also yet another example of why Lambert is the all-time winningest artist in ACM history.
Underwood did a fabulous tribute to great women of the Grand Ole Opry, effortlessly sliding between Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)”, Barbara Mandrell’s “I Was Country (When Country Wasn’t Cool),” Reba McEntire’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” and Martina McBride’s “Broken Wing.” Side note: We’d listen to a whole-ass album of Underwood singing McBride songs, because she knows how to bring the fireworks.
Kelsea Ballerini did a rendition of “Hole in the Bottle” that blended some Floyd Cramer-style piano with nifty bluegrass picking. Gabby Barrett belted her way through the vengeful breakout hit “I Hope.” Maren Morris delivered a sublimely mellow version of “To Hell & Back,” from her album Girl, and later gave an acceptance speech for Female Artist of the Year in which she admitted she desperately needed to urinate and then urged everyone to vote.
Oh, hey, Taylor Swift was also in the house, making a return to the ACMs after seven years away. Accompanied by only a harmonica player, Swift’s performance of “Betty” from 2020’s surprise album Folklore had all the poise of her infamous ACM performance of “Tim McGraw” sung directly to its namesake. She sounded beautiful, and even made a clever little TV-friendly switch of the song’s lyrical F-bomb to the more FCC-friendly “straight to hell.”
As for really addressing the scourges of systemic racism or misogyny or the pandemic or climate change, it was a mixed bag. Urban started the show by noting that we were dealing with “two pandemics: Covid-19 and social injustice. Far too many lives have been lost by both.” Which, while technically correct, is a less scary way to say “racism” when you’re worried about how people might react. Elsewhere, Kane Brown sang “Worldwide Beautiful” with help from a line of backup singers in the Opry House’s balcony to hard-sell the idea of harmony and togetherness. And Church played guitar along to the entirety of Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Ol’ Flag” recitation before ripping into “Stick That in Your Country Song,” which was blustery but felt more like a message about the importance of having a message.
In the end, it was Mickey Guyton’s performance of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” that cut through the noise. It was Guyton’s first time performing on the ACMs, so her song about being a woman and having your dreams crushed came suffused with heavy emotion, particularly given that radio didn’t give it much attention. Guyton, for her part, absolutely knocked it out of the park, demonstrating that she’s got a world-class set of pipes as well as something important to say. It’s worth pointing out that Keith Urban served as Guyton’s accompanist on piano, but wisely stayed out of the spotlight for her big moment.
Interstitials throughout the event showed the stars getting camera-ready touch-ups from makeup artists in face shields, and presenters like Darius Rucker removing a fresh and clean microphone from a sanitized plastic bag. It was an acknowledgement of just how strange everything is, but also that it’s possible to stage a big televised event by taking the right precautions. In a city that has frequently stumbled in its efforts to keep the virus risks contained, it was nice to see.