The Academy of Country Music got a jump on the fall awards season Tuesday night (Aug. 30) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium with a show that featured performances by such bright lights as Lady Antebellum (the event’s official host), Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, The Band Perry and a cluster of rising stars.
For the first time in its 10-year history, the annual ACM Honors, as the event is called, was staged for television. Earlier editions had focused primarily on band musicians and other behind-the-scenes luminaries.
The show will air Sept. 9 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
The audience was told at the outset that the show would be shot in out-of-order segments. Thus, there was not the emotional buildup a regular concert offers. Nor was there the anticipation built into a live awards show in which winners are announced on camera. All the ACM honorees had been revealed in advance and were listed in the programs handed out at the beginning of the taping.
Even so, it was an immensely entertaining evening, so much so that the audience did not noticeably dwindle during the three hours of stop-and-go production.
Aldean, who won the Triple Crown award, opened the show with a medley of “Dirt Road Anthem,” “Tattoos on This Town” and “A Little More Summertime.” The Triple Crown prize is conferred on artists who have won ACM awards for new vocalist, vocalist and entertainer of the year.
Little Big Town then presented Keith Urban with the Mae Boren Axton award for his years of dedication to the ACM. He told the crowd that country music, to him, embodied a sense of service.
“I’m just incredibly proud to be a part of this village,” he said, “because it takes a village.”
He ended his acceptance remarks with a performance of his current single, “Blue Ain’t Your Color.”
At this point, there was a deviation from the show in order that Urban, Little Big Town and Dierks Bentley could sing a rousing cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” for the Stand Up to Cancer charity. The spot will air just before the Sept. 9 special.
Maren Morris came to the stage to cite Tanya Tucker’s many musical achievements in preparation of presenting her the Cliffie Stone Pioneer award. She concluded by belting out Tucker’s 1972 breakthrough hit, “Delta Dawn.”
The crowd gave Tucker a standing ovation when she arose to accept her award.
“I never thought of myself as a pioneer. I left my covered wagon at home tonight,” Tucker quipped. In addition to thanking such role models and supporters as Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Tucker praised the two chief producers of her hits, Billy Sherrill and Jerry Crutchfield.
“Most of all, thanks to the fans,” she said. “We’re back on the road and having a blast.”
Toby Keith stepped up to announce that Jimmy Webb was being honored with one of the two ACM Poet’s awards and noted they were both Oklahomans.
To illustrate Webb’s lyrical magic, The Band Perry performed a version of “MacArthur Park” that escalated from serene to pulsating.
“It’s a milestone to be included in this evening,” Webb said. Apart from writing many hits for Glen Campbell, some of which would be performed later in the show, Webb also composed “Highwayman,” the 1985 Grammy-winner for Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
Webb, a member of ASCAP’s board of directors, ended his remarks by speaking out on behalf of songwriters, who, he maintained, are being “undercompensated” in this digital milieu for their work.
Martina McBride spoke on behalf of the Statler Brothers, winner of the second Cliffie Stone Pioneer award of the evening.
“Unlike the other recipient, I look like a pioneer,” said Statler Brother Don Reid when he came to the stage with fellow Statler Jimmy Fortune to accept the trophy.
Following her remarks, Chris Young and Dan + Shay took the spotlight to perform an uncannily faithful cover of the Statlers’ signature hit, “Flowers on the Wall.”
Kelsea Ballerini recited Crystal Gayle’s accomplishments that had earned her a Cliffie Stone Pioneer honor and then sang Gayle’s double-Grammy-winning “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”
“I don’t think I’m going to sing that song anymore,” Gayle said in praise of Ballerini’s performance. “It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was standing here accepting the most promising [female] vocalist award,” she said, referring to her 1975 ACM prize.
Lady Antebellum topped the next segment with a gorgeously rich and moving cover of “Galveston,” the Webb-penned 1969 hit for Glen Campbell.
Emmylou Harris was up next to present Miranda Lambert the newly instituted Merle Haggard Spirit award. In 1970, Haggard became the ACM’s first entertainer of the year recipient.
Sounding overwhelmed by the honor, Lambert remarked, “I don’t know what to say. A week from now I’ll be calling friends and saying, ‘I got to hang out with Emmylou Harris, and I got the Merle Haggard award.’”
Then she demonstrated her worthiness for the prize by caressing the lyrics of Haggard’s doleful 1980 hit, “Misery and Gin.”
Dierks Bentley summoned Ross Copperman to the stage to receive the songwriter of the year award and then joined him in singing their jointly written barn-burner, “Freedom.”
The late Eddie Rabbitt was cited with the ACM’s second Poet’s Award of the evening. Luke Bryan and Cole Swindell memorialized him with a high-spirited reading of “I Love a Rainy Night,” his 1980 classic.
Rabbitt’s daughter Demelza accepted the trophy.
The Jim Reeves International award went to the late Jeff Walker for his work in taking country music abroad.
In accepting the prize, Walker’s wife, Terri, noted that Jeff’s father, Bill Walker, who was in the audience, had worked with Reeves on his international recordings before Jeff became involved in country music.
Carrie Underwood’s husband, Mike Fisher, stood in for her as she was presented the Gary Haber Lifting Lives award. Haber was Underwood’s former manager.
Underwood “appeared” via her music video, “Temporary Home.”
The singer Cam introduced Little Big Town to receive the Crystal Milestone award for a “specific, remarkable achievement,” in this case their recording of the infectious and controversial “Girl Crush” of 2014-15.
Cam joined pop singer Alicia Keys in singing an equally smoldering cover of “Girl Crush,” with Keys playing piano.
“Blues and country and soul — they’re all cousins,” the clearly delighted Keys proclaimed.
Their performance was the most loudly applauded of the whole show and earned the two a standing ovation.
Blake Shelton then announced that the Academy was awarding Glen Campbell its career achievement prize. Campbell is in the final stages of Alzheimers’ disease.
After enumerating Campbell’s many glories, the reliably mischievous Shelton added, “And, damn, was he a good-looking man!”
With two of Campbell’s children — Ashley on banjo and Shannon on guitar — joining the house band, Shelton, Bentley, Urban and Keith reprised an array of Campbell’s best-known songs.
Campbell’s wife Kim and three of his children accepted the award.
“He’d be thrilled receiving this on the same night as his longtime friend, Jimmy Webb,” she said.
In spite of the intrusive mechanics of taping, it was a musically splendid evening.