Would they? Wouldn’t they? How could they? With the Academy of Country Music returning to Vegas for the 53rd annual ACM Awards, the org’s first since the terrible mass shooting at the Route 91 Festival, the notion of how to recognize the tragedy without exploiting the 58 killed and several hundred injured loomed large.

In the end, it was a stark stage initially inhabited by Jason Aldean in a single spotlight. Speaking straight to camera, he offered the simplest benediction possible, “Tonight, we wanted to open the show with something that shows what it’s like for our country music family to be back in Las Vegas for the first time since Oct. 1. We thought about starting with a song, but it’s a lot bigger than a single song. It’s everything you’ll hear tonight—the songs that bring us to our feet, make you wanna pull someone close, or just live in the moment. Nothing can take that away from me.”

Joined by Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Maren Morris and Thomas Rhett for a spoken-word open, they let their words land on the hearts of those assembled in the MGM Grand Arena. Sober but triumphant, producer RAC Clark and ACM head Pete Fisher successfully walked the line.

Viewers liked it. The show, which aired on CBS, was the top program of the night, pulling in an audience of 12.1m. That was an increase of 1.2m viewers over the 2017 broadcast.

With a killer monologue by hostess Reba McEntire, which pointed out that after several years of Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley as co-hosts, one woman was now doing what it took two—or three—men to do plus a joke about the biggest thing in 1993 being McEntire’s hair, the show turned left and started achieving elevation in a respectful way. Whomever is writing McEntire’s material deserves kudos for a wry tone that could bring levity after such a heavy moment.

Equally matched to the task was Kenny Chesney, alone on a flyer stage amongst the fans. The four-time Entertainer of the Year leaned into his brand new “Get Along” with a zeal that was equal parts loving life and outright joy. McEntire intro’d the song, saying it was a message for right now, and the notion of focusing on our similarities instead of the stridence and differences added a note of jubilance.

Big Machine boss Scott Borchetta toasts Midland and Thomas Rhett, whose mustaches all have their own dressing rooms.

Without missing a beat, Morris—the female artist development story of the last five years—returned to the stage for a muscularly uptempo “Rich,” all sass and swagger. Then Chris Young followed with the more traditional-leaning “Losing Sleep,” suggesting there’s a place for classicism in the genre.

Indeed, at a time when country has never been more pop, it was the throwback moments to celebrate 1993 that packed some of the evening’s biggest punches. Jon Pardi looked like the kid who got to take batting practice with Babe Ruth, sharing the stage with Alan Jackson on “Chattahoochee,” Shelton went toe-to-toe with Toby Keith on a loping “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and Kelly Clarkson revved up the serious diva duet “Does He Love You” with McEntire.

Whether your kind of country is the feel good hip hop pop of Florida Georgia Line—here with Bebe Rexha for the now crossing over “Meant to Be,” the Laurel Canyon throwbackery of Midland doing their #1 debut “Drinking Problem,” the lush, otherworldly harmonies of Little Big Town on a bare, reconfigured “Rocket Man” from the Elton John country tribute Restoration, the Barbie-doll coquettery of Kelsea Ballerini, evoking the American Idol oeuvre, there is something for everyone, or Lambert’s tradition-pushing “Keeper of the Flame.”

There were solid, classic performances from Aldean (the slow blues “You Make It Easy”), Keith Urban (the uplifting “Coming Home” with awesome graphics and Julia Michaels), and Bryan (humanity-affirming “Most People Are Good”). If former classmates Kane Brown and Lauren Alaina’s set looked like Stonehenge takes the beach, the performance of the erotically charged “What Ifs” speaks for a post-modern future for the once redneck genre.

But Carrie Underwood pulled off the performance of the night hands down with “Cry Pretty.” Not only was the note she held at the end superlative for its clarity and emotional charge, her command of the stage and the song’s intention made the young woman wearing what appeared to be an evocation of Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard “Queen of the Night” dress transcendent. The sustained ovation at the end was almost as long as “that note,” and it was deserved.

UMG celebrants (front row l-r) gathered post-show to watch the James Comey interview together: Darius Rucker, Luke Bryan and Jordan Davis; (back row l-r) Adam Hambrick, Travis Denning, LBT’s Kimberly Schlapman and Phillip Sweet, Cindy Mabe, Mike Dungan, Maddie & Tae’s Maddie Marlow, LBT’s Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild, Maddie & Tae’s Taylor Dye, Carrie Underwood, Jon Pardi
(Photo: Alan Poizner)

Beyond the performances—22 in all, there were winners. In some cases, Chris Stapleton taking Album and Male Vocalist, Lambert repeating as Female, and Brothers Osborne repeating as Duo of the Year, the awards were as expected. Aldean, who’d been onstage when the shooting happened, took Entertainer in the night’s most emotional win, and Old Dominion—oddly not performing, though in attendance—were easily the night’s most grateful winners.

Urban and Underwood won Vocal Event for the surging “The Fighter,” a song about equanimity in a relationship, while Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road” took Single, but failed to prevail in Song, which went to Lambert’s “Tin Man.” The trio of Best News went to Brett Young, Alaina and Midland .

As general takeaways go, there were a few. Jackson is the new Merle Haggard, Keith’s rough country sets him apart for his grittiness; the soon-to-be elder statesman still have “it” and have no trouble bringing the serious magic. Urban continues stretching the boundaries, but most progressively truly scans as a feminist. Sam Elliott is a killer ACM presenter, as is Entertainment Tonight’s Nancy O’Dell.

Revelers at Sony Music Nashville's ACM Awards post party at Hakkasan, including (l-r) Jim Catino, Ken Robold, Steve Hodges, Old Dominion's Matthew Ramsey, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Randy Goodman, Kane Brown and John Zarling, made a friendly wager about their beloved Predators' chances of meeting the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Playoffs. (Photo: Michael Roberts)

Dead spiders appear to be the new trend in false eyelashes. Dan & Shay have a lock on Rascal Flatts’ real estate based on their very acoustic “Tequila.” McEntire should be hired in perpetuity for spirit, ability to capture the moment—coming onstage after Stapleton’s Album win to tell America the missing vocal powerhouse and wife Morgane had had their twins (“little rascals”) a little early. McEntire—who shouted out designer/former stylist Sandi Spika—was also able to wear the plugging and once controversial “red dress” from her original “Does He Love You” performance in 1993.

With Lambert breaking Brooks & Dunn’s record of 29 with Album and rounding 31 wins with Female, it was a big night for the Texan. It was also a big night for the Academy, which weathered a horrible tragedy without allowing it to capsize or overwhelm its annual awards show.

Entertainer of the Year
Chris Stapleton
Garth Brooks
Jason Aldean [WINNER]
Keith Urban
Luke Bryan

Male Vocalist of the Year
Chris Stapleton [WINNER]
Chris Young
Jason Aldean
Keith Urban
Thomas Rhett

Female Vocalist of the Year
Carrie Underwood
Kelsea Ballerini
Maren Morris
Miranda Lambert [WINNER]
Reba McEntire

Vocal Duo of the Year
Brothers Osborne [WINNER]
Dan + Shay
Florida Georgia Line
Tim McGraw & Faith Hill

Vocal Group of the Year
Lady Antebellum
Little Big Town
Old Dominion [WINNER]

New Female Vocalist of the Year
Lauren Alaina [WINNER]
Carly Pearce
Danielle Bradbery

New Male Vocalist of the Year
Brett Young [WINNER]
Devin Dawson
Kane Brown
Luke Combs
Russell Dickerson

New Vocal Duo or Group of the Year
Midland [WINNER]
High Valley
Runaway June

Album of the Year
Breaker, Little Big Town
California Sunrise, Jon Pardi
From A Room: Volume 1, Chris Stapleton [WINNER]
Happy Endings, Old Dominion
Life Changes, Thomas Rhett

Single Record of the Year
"Better Man," Little Big Town
"Body Like a Back Road," Sam Hunt [WINNER]
"Broken Halos," Chris Stapleton
"Drinkin' Problem," Midland
"I'll Name the Dogs," Blake Shelton

Song of the Year
"Body Like a Back Road," Sam Hunt
"Female," Keith Urban
"Tin Man," Miranda Lambert [WINNER]
"Whiskey and You," Chris Stapleton

Video of the Year
"Black," Dierks Bentley
"It Ain't My Fault," Brothers Osborne [WINNER]
"Legends," Kelsea Ballerini
"Marry Me," Thomas Rhett
"We Should Be Friends," Miranda Lambert

Vocal Event of the Year
"Craving You," Maren Morris f/Thomas Rhett
"Dear Hate," Maren Morris f/Vince Gill
"Funny (How Time Slips Away)," Glen Campbell f/Willie Nelson
"The Fighter," Carrie Underwood f/Keith Urban [WINNER]
"What Ifs," Kane Brown f/Lauren Alaina

Songwriter of the Year
Rhett Akins [WINNER]
Ashley Gorley
Hillary Lindsey
Josh Osborne
Shane McAnally

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