With its Tinseltown roots, the Academy of Country Music could never be accused of visual restraint when it came to staging its award shows.
Often the lighting and special effects have resembled explosions in a fireworks factory. But on Sunday’s gala (April 7) from Las Vegas, the emphasis was clearly on the songs.
And there was a wealth of memorable tunes, some socially conscious, some intriguingly introspective.
The ageless Reba McEntire was a superb host, as always, even if a scripted joke or two fell flat. Her performance of “Freedom” late in the show, with its refrain of “Loving you feels like freedom,” demonstrated that she’s still the champion of strong emotional statements.
Thomas Rhett, who would later cop the male vocalist of the year prize, kicked off the show with his high-energy “Look What God Gave Her.” It was a generally laudatory evening for God. He was later saluted by George Strait with “God and Country Music” and Blake Shelton with “God’s Country.” The deity fared less well in Little Big Town’s “The Daughters.”
One of the most delightful parts of the evening was watching Dan + Shay become increasingly excited as they accepted in fairly quick succession awards for song, single and duo of the year. Each time, they seemed to find more people to hug on their way to the stage.
Chris Stapleton tipped his hat to traditional country music with “A Simple Song,” a glimpse into a factory worker’s hard life and the joys of family. Then came Ashley McBryde and her triumphantly bittersweet “Girl Goin’ Nowhere.”
Dan + Shay teamed with Kelly Clarkson for the gently cautionary “Keeping Score.”
Backed by willowy dancers to underline the irony of the real labors women go through — and the expectations placed on them to succumb gracefully — Little Big Town sang “The Daughters,” with its blistering refrain, “I’ve heard of God the son and God the father / I’m still looking for a God for the daughters.”
Theirs was the most riveting performance of the evening. Old Dominion’s “Make It Sweet” was another stellar addition to the parade of songs about how life should be lived. “Life is short,” they sang, “make it sweet.”
Luke Combs, holding a Red Solo cup, joined Brooks & Dunn for a rip-roaring version of “Brand New Man” to illustrate to country newcomers how the old-pros did it.
Always an arresting performer — as his subsequent entertainer of the year trophy confirmed — Keith Urban held the audience spellbound with his Good Samaritan song, “Burden.” The song was threaded through with the comforting lyric, “Come to me my brother, and I’ll sit with you awhile.”
Thomas Rhett looked incredulous about his win when he came up to accept the male vocalist prize. Stumbling for just the right words of appreciation, he spotted his wife, hesitated for a moment, and then reassured her she was ”smokin’ hot.”
Eric Church and Ashley McBryde offered the strangest song of the evening with “The Snake” a dialogue between a rattlesnake and a copperhead that was accompanied by graphics of the coiling and slithering reptiles. The song might have been a parable about our eternally warring political parties when it says, “Either one of them’ll kill you dead/We stay hungry, they stay fed.”
The much-touted Carrie Underwood segment for “Southbound” featured her and her poolside buddies, Runaway June and Maddie & Tae, marching away from the water’s edge into the auditorium. It was easygoing and light-hearted and brought to mind a touring company’s version of L’il Abner.
Other standouts included Kane Brown’s teaming with Khalid for “Good as You” and “Saturday Night”; Jason Aldean’s medley of “The Lights Come On,” “Dirt Road Anthem” and (with Kelly Clarkson) “Don’t You Want to Stay”; Dierks Bentley and Brandi Carlile’s “Travelin’ Light”; and Miranda Lambert and George Strait’s “Run.”
Making her ACM Awards debut, This Is Us actress Chriss Metz led a powerful performance of “I’m Standing With You” with Lauren Alaina, Mickey Guyton, Maddie & Tae and Carrie Underwood. The moment spotlighted the organization’s philanthropic initiative, ACM Lifting Lives, and its ongoing dedication to improving lives through the power of music.
To the great relief of all — except possibly the winners — there were no long acceptances speeches to suffer through, and the show finished right on time.