On a night that had the potential to be dominated by over-the-top spectacle, the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards stayed on the right musical trail Sunday night (April 19) at the cavernous AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
To quote the late Darrell Royal, who coached the University of Texas Longhorns to three national football championships, “You dance with the one that brung ya.’”
Wisely, the ACM knew the music is what had “brung” them to the Lone Star State to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary with a star-studded show that lasted three and a-half hours. Sure, there were some Hollywood celebrities there as presenters and a couple of collaborations between country and pop acts, but the focus was decidedly on the music.
And even though the hosts, Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan, began the evening by announcing the event had achieved a Guinness World Record for the most-attended live awards show in history, the performances felt fairly intimate on the TV screen. And there was a minimum of awkward banter and flat jokes, leaving plenty of time for the country artists to do what they do best — sing and play.
Miranda Lambert, who won her latest three ACM trophies for song of the year (“Automatic”), album of the year (Platinum) and female vocalist, commanded the stage while delivering “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Little Red Wagon.”
Keith Urban and Eric Church opened the show with “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.” During the final moments of Chruch’s tribute to Merle Haggard, Urban slipped in a sly reference with the famous guitar lick to Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” From there, they offered their current collaboration, “Raise ‘Em Up.”
George Strait followed with the appropriate “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” his No. 1 hit from 1987, followed by his brand new single, “Let It Go.”
Strait’s choice of songs proved to be a theme that continued throughout the night. For the most part, the artists used the CBS telecast to promote their latest singles, but there were plenty of older songs to put things into something of a historical context while offering familiar material to longtime fans.
Jason Aldean and Reba McEntire clearly packed the most hits into their performances, with Aldean singing his latest single, “Tonight Looks Good on You,” followed by snippets of his earlier hits, including “My Kinda Party,” “Hicktown” and “She’s Country.” McEntire took a different chronology with “Is There Life Out There,” “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and “Fancy” before offering her current single, “Going Out Like That.”
Martina McBride, who was nominated for female vocalist this year, delivered “Independence Day,” her signature song from 1994. And a reunited Brooks & Dunn offered a spirited version of their 1996 hit, “My Maria,” proving beyond a doubt that they still have a great onstage chemistry anytime they want it.
Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson provided more somber moments. Brooks was introduced by author Tara Kyle, widow of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whose life was chronicled in the 2014 film, American Sniper. Brooks then performed “All-American Kid,” a song from his recent Man Against Machine album. Written by Craig Campbell, Brice Long and Terry McBride, “All-American Kid” follows the life of a young man who evolved from a high school sports hero to become a war hero. During Brooks’ performance, a long line of uniformed U.S. military personnel walked toward the front of the stage.
Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and Jackson performed “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” a song inspired by the terrorists’ attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001.
The collaborations between pop and country didn’t seem particularly forced. Christina Aguilera’s “Shotgun,” written for her appearance on the ABC TV series Nashville, was a smooth complement to Rascal Flatts’ “Riot.” Dan + Shay’s “Nothin’ Like You” melded with Nick Jonas catchy pop single, “Chains.”
Other performances were provided by Little Big Town (“Girl Crush”), Blake Shelton (“Sangria”), Florida Georgia Line (“Sippin’ on Fire”), Dierks Bentley (“Riser”), Luke Bryan (“I See You”), Lady Antebellum (“Long Stretch of Love”) and Brad Paisley (“Crushin’ It”).
Paisley and Darius Rucker closed the night with “Let the Good Times Roll,” a jump blues tune popularized by R&B master Louis Jordan in the ‘40s.