Carrie Underwood Leads Night of Newcomers in Las Vegas

Fellow Performers Include First-Time ACM Nominees

LAS VEGAS — Carrie Underwood kicked off a three-hour show of country’s newest artists on Monday night (May 22) at the MGM Grand, driving home the realization that a fresh crop of singers are really making progress in country music.

Pretty much everybody on the lineup had a No. 1 hit — which is probably why all the performing artists were nominated for top new male, female or duo or group category at Tuesday’s (May 23) Academy of Country Music awards show.

A huge line snaked throughout the back corridors of the MGM Grand waiting to get into the cavernous ballroom for the ACM’s new artists show, and those who came early were treated to the biggest star of the night, Underwood, who sang “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats.” Unfortunately, the ballroom was still only about a third full, despite several thousand fans and industry folks in attendance, which made it hard to sustain too much crowd momentum in between the sets.

From where I was sitting (about halfway back in a sea of empty convention center chairs), it sounded like Miranda Lambert got about three seconds of applause, prompting the emcee to immediately say, “One more time for Miranda Lambert!” which led to about three more seconds of applause. Of course, Underwood is a hard act to follow, even when your hits (like Lambert’s “Kerosene” and “Brand New Strings”) are pretty catchy. Lambert also tossed in a cover of Steve Earle’s “Hillbilly Highway.”

Because all of the artists only have a handful of hits, nobody outstayed their welcome. Jason Aldean (who couldn’t get even get a wristband to the show last year) relied on loud guitars to get his music across. Little Big Town harmonized wonderfully on “Good as Gone,” “Bring It On Home” and “Boondocks,” and Julie Roberts appeared very poised and confident (and sounded great, too) while previewing three songs from her upcoming album, including a Patsy Cline-ish “Smile” and the memorable “Men & Mascara.”

Craig Morgan told the audience he wouldn’t have missed the show for anything, even though he hobbled on and off stage on a pair of crutches after breaking his leg in a recent motorcycle accident. Always a popular live performer, the crowd really got into his hits, “I Got You,” “That’s What I Love About Sunday” and “Redneck Yacht Club” — with a little bit of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” tossed in.

Billy Currington also offered a strong set of his latest singles. Though he’s mostly known for being sexy at this point, when you strip away (or to rephrase — take away) the buff bod, he’s a very capable and engaging singer. Although it would have made sense to have Underwood close out the show (due to her four ACM nominations), the audience didn’t seem to mind hanging around until Currington concluded the evening with “I Got a Feeling.”

In addition, a silent auction of autographed guitars, CDs and other memorabilia in the hallway raised money for the T.J. Martell Foundation, while a live auction in the ballroom (with generous prize packages from Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts) brought in more than $55,000 for the charity.