Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert Display Girl Power at ACM Awards

Male Artists Shine, Too, but Dolly Parton's Sassy Teaming With Katy Perry Made a Memory

It was a girl crush of a different kind Sunday night (April 3) at the Academy of Country Music Awards when Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and the duo of Dolly Parton and Katy Perry turned in the most riveting performances of the night.

It wasn’t that they completely crushed the male competition, but Underwood’s performances at award shows are have become must-see-TV for country music fans.

While some award show moments remain tightly-kept secrets up until the moment of the live telecast, Underwood had already announced that she’d be offering the first televised performance of her latest single, “Church Bells.” And even if you’d heard the song on her Storyteller album, witnessing the production and her delivery was another experience altogether.

With dark, shadowy staging set setting a gothic tone, Underwood arrived onstage wearing a metallic-clad mini-dress and stiletto heels while her band slammed out the rhythms of the song written by Zach Crowell, Brett James and Hillary Lindsey. Underwood even grabbed some sticks to pound out rhythms on two drums. As always, though, it was her vocal delivery that ultimately won the night.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 03:  Recording artist Carrie Underwood (C) performs onstage during the 51st Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 3, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Miranda Lambert’s vocal provided ownership of her performance of ZZ Top’s classic rock standard, “Tush,” although having Keith Urban and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons accompanying her onstage certainly didn’t hurt matters.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 03:  (L-R) Recording artists Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert and Billy Gibbons perform onstage during the 51st Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 3, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The song’s musical riff is etched in the brain of any music fan — and pretty much anyone from the Lone Star State — so having Gibbons handling the slide guitar solo had to have been a special moment for Lambert, an East Texas native. Urban more than held his own in swapping solos with Gibbons, and you could tell that they weren’t afraid to turn their amplifiers up to 11 to deliver the song.

And then there was the much-heralded pairing of Dolly Parton and Katy Perry. The moment might have felt even bigger had it not started with Parton accepting the ACM’s Tex Ritter Award for her made-for-TV movie, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, although it’s hard to quibble with the presentation. It is an awards show, after all.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 03:  Honoree Dolly Parton (L) and recording artist Katy Perry perform onstage during the 51st Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 3, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Their vocal collaboration began, fittingly, with “Coat of Many Colors,” but the sass and playfulness the crowd was expecting came with the two singers swapping lines on “Jolene” and “9 to 5.” Perry completed the medley by kneeling down and bowing to Parton, an undisputed idol for any singer or songwriter.

Not to be outdone by the women, Tim McGraw also knows how to seize the moment at awards shows, and he did so Sunday with a performance of “Humble and Kind.”

onstage during the 51st Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 3, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The song’s uplifting lyrics were underscored by a procession of people representing a wide range of cultural diversity. Given recent events internationally and on the political front in the U.S., the song is a subtle message of how simple manners and a little humility can make a major difference in our lives.

Eric Church provided an unexpected moment by performing “Record Year,” his musical homage to listening to vinyl albums, and tagging it with a tribute to several music legends who have died in recent months — the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and Motorhead’s Lemmy, along with David Bowie and Scott Weiland. After beginning the performance of his own song, Church went to a pair of turntables to offer short samples of rock favorites such as Bowie’s “Fame” and “Changes.”

For casual fans of country music, Little Big Town showed a slightly different side by emphasizing the vocals of Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook. Especially on awards shows, the emphasis is often on group harmonies or the female voices of Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman. Fairchild, in particular, has been the focus for the past year as the lead vocalist on the group’s mega-hit, “Girl Crush.”

Having Sweet and Westbrook in the vocal forefront was a welcome reminder that, yes, these two guys can really sing. The performance was catapulted to an even higher level with New Orleans whiz kid Trombone Shorty and some of his friends accenting the song with a funky second-line horn melody.

The first 30 minutes of the awards show was packed with music, with co-host Luke Bryan opening the ceremony with his new single, “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day.” And at the moment he was saying, “My new co-host — Dierks Bentley,” last year’s co-host Blake Shelton ran onstage in a well-executed comedy bit.

Shelton followed with a performance of his latest single, “I Came Here to Forget,” but Bentley finally got his chance to co-host and a later performance slot for his current Top 10 single, “Somewhere on a Beach.”

In fact Bentley wasn’t the only one singing a Top 10 single. Among the others following suit were Cole Swindell (“You Should Be Here”), Florida Georgia Line (“Confession”), Brett Eldredge (“Drunk on Your Love”), Old Dominion (“Snapback”) and Chris Young with Cassadee Pope (“Think of You”).

Among those opting for familiar material were Thomas Rhett (“Die a Happy Man”) and Cam (“Burning House”). Kelsea Ballerini split the difference by moving from her first hit, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” and her new single, “Peter Pan.” On the latter, she was joined by Nick Jonas, who provided a guitar solo and a complementary vocal.

Chris Stapleton is still getting airplay at country radio stations with “Nobody to Blame,” which won song of the year honors Sunday night, but he performed “Fire Away,” a track from his breakthrough album, Traveller. At this point, Traveller has become one of the most-awarded albums in country music history.

Adhering to a time-honored tradition, other artists used the awards show to gain additional exposure for their new or recently-released singles. Among the brand new ones were Kenny Chesney’s “Noise,” Jason Aldean “Lights Come On” and Keith Urban’s “Wasted Time,” all from their upcoming albums, along with Charles Kelley’s “Lonely Girl” and Sam Hunt’s “Make You Miss Me.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.