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ACM AWARDS:
THE MOMENTS

Beyond the obvious—Florida Georgia Line/Backstreet Boys’ spiking hormonal hysteria bodes well for this summer’s stadium plays—the highlights at this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards stemmed more from the human elements than big bang boom production. Though props must be given to Lady Antebellum for taking over both sides of that double stage, and consuming the space with true joy.

Faith Hill’s little-girlish jumping up and down, following her duet with Rat Pack-evoking Tim McGraw in his sleek tux on their Sony debut, “Speak To A Girl,” was easily the night’s most endearing moment. Coupled with her smoky gospel/diva performance on a song that lays it all down on the way to get real with a woman, the duet announced that Faith is not only back, she’s resplendent—and ready to reign as the genre’s resident Beyoncé.

 Reba McEntire makes her bones as the next generation’s Dolly Parton, a woman who knows how to light up a room, take the audience to church and bring just the right larger-than-life vocal flips to her performance. Here, side by side on a bare stage, she teamed up with gospel’s Lauren Daigle on the looking-insanity-in-the-eye “Back To God,” a tour de force that never got out of control.

Another icon-evoker was Top New Male Jon Pardi, channeling George Strait, as he and his band went for black suits, open white shirts and an even more countrified romp through his recent #1, “Dirt on My Boots.” Fellow house of Mabe’n’Dungan residents Brothers Osborne took home Top New Duo/Group and Top Duo, turning in a full-tilt performance that was as much about musicianship as the song to show why and how the dark-horse Virginia brothers keep winning these awards.

Miranda Lambert stood alone with her acoustic guitar and delivered “Tin Man,” a song she insists is an homage to Kenny Chesney’s 1994 hit of the same name, which was re-recorded and re-released in 2001. The power of one woman, one guitar wasn’t lost on the audience, who voted her Female Vocalist for the eighth time (breaking her tie with Reba) and Album of the Year for the double-album The Weight of These Wings (Vanner/RCA Nashville). Wings continues her streak of her last five albums winning Album of the Year.

Producer Frank Liddell commended Lambert for being willing to write from her heart and her real life, and called on all the young songwriters listening to “write from a real place.”

Keeping it real was Thomas Rhett, who won Song of the Year for “Die A Happy Man” (Valory/BMLG) and the night’s big upset Male Vocalist. Country’s answer to Bruno Mars is coming on strong, especially evident in his blistering chemistry with Top New Female Maren Morris, whose power vocal licks made Rascal Flatts’  athletic lead singer Gary LeVox visibly blanch  in a cutaway. It’s ironic to have NASCAR drivers presenting an award sponsored by Xfinity –the cumbersome addition of name-checking evoked the logo-stickered high-velocity cars. But when the dust settled, Video of the Year went to the Country Music Association’s “Forever Country” clip, featuring just about every country star currently making music.

If Thomas Rhett’s trophies weren't enough, BMLG ruler Scott Borchetta could rev his engines for Florida Georgia Line’s Single of the Year for “H.O.L.Y.” and Top Vocal Event with McGraw for “May We All,” while Sony Music Nashville chief Randy Goodman and Co. watched Miranda and Maren bring home the hardware. And Broken Bow Music Group topper Jon Loba got the ultimate prize, as Jason Aldean went back-to-back with Entertainer. 

Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood’s frenzied “The Fighter” was perhaps the best country-on-country collaboration. And Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color” shows that "unlikely and subtle" is as effective in his repertoire as intimate ballads and rompers.

Urban should also be given the Taylor Swift MVP Audience Participation Award, as he was engaged, invested and playing along every time a camera found him in the front row.

Beyond the unthinkable—the show was wrapped at 10:59 Nashville time—this year’s ACMs were more streamlined than previous years. Fewer massive productions gave way to singers without bands, or with just a handful of players. In addition to making the changeovers cleaner, there was a sense of engagement from the performers that helped reduce the gulf between TV and the arena.

But to close out the way we began: FGL/BSB spared no tricks. Pyro, racing into the crowd, crazy dancing, a huge dose of nostalgia powered by the energy of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and showmanship honed as the original boy band of the 21st Century. The energy hit was palpable, and the entire audience found the beat throughout their song.

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