If one thing emerged from the 54th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, it was the power of being true to one’s (artistic) self, no matter how out of step with the prevailing sense of “what’s working.” Perennial musical explorer Keith Urban took his first ACM Entertainer of the Year; Dan + Shay—on the back draft of a stunning less-is-more Grammy performance—tripled with Duo, plus Song and Single for “Tequila,” and country-popper Thomas Rhett won his second Male Vocalist Award.

Perhaps the greatest Grammy rising reality, though, was Kacey Musgraves. With minimal country airplay, mass critical success and the top Album of the Year Grammy, picked up her well-deserved, second Album of the Year award for Golden Hour, as well as her second Top Female Vocalist.

The gap between female achievement and female access to the terrestrial airwaves is so great, host Reba McEntire—who made headlines while announcing the nominees on CBSThe Early Show for asking where the ladies were in Entertainer of the Year—addressed a potential Musgraves’ snub part in her monologue. Eyes twinkling, the 16-time host looked into the camera and cracked, “It didn't bother Kacey Musgraves—she was too busy carrying all those Grammys around.”

UMG Nashville boss Mike Dungan, who had a fine evening indeed, joins prez Cindy Mabe and artists Maddie & Tae, Jordan Davis, Travis Denning, Keith Urban, Little Big Town, Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley and producer Daniel Tashian (glasses and bowtie) for a festive photo op, after which he advised all and sundry that if that fool from HITS invites them on his boat, they should just claim to get very seasick.

Even the performances that stood out diverted from the airwaves. Chris Stapleton, who continues setting the cred standard, pulled things close for a stripped down “Simple Song,” a declaration of life near the margins that was classic country writing. With just an upright bass, minimal drum kit, his very pregnant wife Morgane Stapleton and that twisted bit of amber voice, he drained the same emotional current as Merle Haggard from working class family truth.

Urban, too, went intimate on a dark stage, where he caressed Foy Vance’s “Burden,” a song of sharing and supporting others in pain. He texted about riding his bike around London on a day off, listening to all things Foy, “I heard ‘Burden’ and literally just stopped peddling and just let it wash over me. It REALLY spoke to me. So when I got back to Nashville, I called Dave Cobb and said I wanted to see if we could capture the way I felt about it.” We should all be so blessed to have someone offer us that kind of unconditional being there.

Sony Music Nashville topper Randy Goodman toasts his team, who played a fun drinking game where you do a shot whenever somebody mentions whiskey in a song. Seen somehow still standing up are (l-r) EVP A&R Jim Catino, COO/EVP Ken Robold, Tenille Townes, Ryan Hurd, Maren Morris, Goodman, Mitchell Tenpenny and EVP Promo/Artist Development Steve Hodges

Little Big Town also delivered concern and support with “The Daughters.” Dressed in white, a cascade of modern dancers demonstrated the hope, beauty, strength, even innocence of young women in juxtaposing dusty rose around them. Karen Fairchild, the song’s writer, saw her voice breaking just the tiniest bit, delivering her song which asks for a true place/voice/realm in the world for girls as it suggests the breaking point for the faux-girl power preaching needs to yield  real opportunities.

Girl with guitar Ashley McBryde, who would also guest on a half-talking blues Southern gothic parable “The Snake” with Eric Church, won a standing ovation standing alone on a flyer stage.

Her brandy 'n' barbed-wire 'n' blood voice embraced the fly in the face of naysayers "Girl Going Nowhere," which struck a chord reflecting her tenacious message of  “Screw you, haters. faith/passion/hard work overcomes.”

And if Carrie Underwood’s pool party performance smacked of packaged Vegas (and a Mandalay Bay properties stroke), the former Entertainer of the Year and host of the “CMA Awards,” was saving her real moment for “I’m Standing With You.” Built around “This Is Us” star Chrissie Metz’s live singing debut with the end theme from her film “Breakthrough,” the pair transformed the performance into an act of female solidarity—dressed in shades of deep blue—by including upcoming females Mickey Guyton, Lauren Alaina and Maddie & Tae. The classic Diane Warren gospel-cresting power-lift saw the women trading fiery “standing with you” licks on the end.

Also breaking ground was Kane Brown. His recent #1 “Heaven” melted into “Saturday Night,” a collaboration with Khalid that demonstrated how much common ground there is between his fiddle-forward post-classic country and what’s happening in hip-hop. As the “Old Town Road” controversy rages on—having been removed from at least one Country chart because the Lil Nas X song (with or without Billy Ray Cyrus) eclipses the other mainstream country artists combined.

Both Reba and Blake Shelton returned to tauter, more traditional country performances to great effect. It’s easy to forget why this genre in its most classic forms mattered. McEntire’s “Freedom,” co-produced by Buddy Cannon, reveled life’s bumps and triumphs, while Shelton’s terse “God’s Country” brought the lean-forward tension that marked his best work with Hall of Fame songwriter Bobby Braddock.

Scott Borchetta's Big Machine Label Group crew joins ACM CEO Pete Fisher for this jolly ensemble pic before staging an impromptu Formula One rally in the parking lot. Seen wondering where they left their driving gloves are (back, l-r): Lauren Akins, Thomas Rhett, Danielle Bradbery, Borchetta, Valory GM George Briner, Brett Young, Florida Georgia Line's Brian Kelley, BMLG EVP Jimmy Harnen, FGL's Tyler Hubbard and (front, l-r) SVP Promo Matthew Hargis, Fisher, Riley Green, CMO Mike Rittberg and A&R SVP Allison Jones.

Sadly, George Strait provided textbook contrast between the sag of the current flash-card country with the genre’s greatness as he offered a tired, sloganeering “God & Country,” then returned with Miranda Lambert for a burning “Flashback” of 2001’s “Run,” perhaps the most erotic country song of the modern era. If one felt like today’s “more of the same,” the other demonstrated why Strait is considered not just “The King of Country Music,” but a consummate song man/stylist in any genre.

Florida George Line and Jason Aldean opened with the stomping “Can’t Hide Red,” and two performances later Luke Bryan shined up his “Knockin’ Boots.” Later, Dick Clark/ACMArtist of the Decade recipient Aldean delivered a medley of “Lights Come On,” “The Truth” with Kelly Clarkson and “Dirt Road Anthem” that—like Strait’s “Run”—offered quality to last.

Juxtaposed with Best New Male Luke Combs joining Brooks & Dunn for a “Flashback” of the recent Hall of Fame inductee’s debut single “Brand New Man,” the spark and drive of redneck redemption showed why this onslaught originally took form. In a true Wayne’s World moment of utter fan elation, Combs tackled the first full-throttle verse, clearly bucket-listing.

Medleys and pile-ups—aka “Grammy Moments”—abounded. Lambert romped through five hits as a means of demonstrating how she racked up her record-shattering 32 ACM Awards. Americana sweetheart Brandi Carlile may be the most unabashed country fan out there; she also brought the notion of LGBTQ beauty to the ACMS, joining Dierks Bentley for a bluegrass-y “Travelin’ Light” that was pure delight.

Warner Music Nashville boss Espo joins triumphant artists Dan + Shay, Ashley McBryde and Chris Janson in preparation for what we can only guess will be an all-star metal project.

Once again, country not only showed its best face, it proved that beyond what’s marketed and sold through the broadest channels, there is greatness beyond the airwaves. As always the producing team of Rac Clark, Barry Adelman, Allen Shapiro, the ACM’s Pete Fisher and the network’s Jack Sussman set out to create a wider reaching core sample of the genre—and its scope mirrored the night’s winners.

The move to 24 (or 25 if you count Strait’s play-off) performances and only eight wins means less on-camera reaction. Which less is more remains to be seen, as Vocal Group winners Old Dominion were awarded on the Red Carpet, Vocal Event and Video winners Bentley and Brothers Osborne for “Burning Man” and Chris Janson for “Drunk Girl” were notified earlier as well. Yes, the “God, mama, country radio and the fans” thank yous over and over gets tedious, but winning these awards is a big moment for most artists—and the rare time to acknowledge their journey. None of these men were given that opportunity.

It’s a tv show to celebrate music—and people love the performances. But if it’s about celebrating the artists, it’s a question to consider, especially for the ACM, the West Coast organization that’s always leaned into recognizing artists first.

Was it a watershed? Hard to say. But as the conversation shifts, as members of Music Row stand up, as artists insist on performances that reflect their essence and speak truths they believe in, progress is made. Step by step, or maybe brick by brick, we’re getting there. One night in Vegas, it felt like the brave new future wasn’t just a dot of light far off in the distance, but something that might actually be coming into view.

Team Sony Nashville quickly agrees that if they stay very still, HITS' Todd Hensley will sniff them and then move on. Seen gambling that it'll work are (front, l-r) LANCO's Brandon Lancaster; SMN boss Randy Goodman; LANCO's  Jared Hampton and Tripp HowellLuke Combs; EVP A&R Jim Catino. (back l-r): Eric Steedly; COO/EVP Ken Robold; Old Dominion's Whit Sellers, Geoff Sprung, Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen, and Brad Tursi; and EVP Promotion and Artist Development Steve Hodges.




Photo credits: Jason Myers, Jason Kempin, Michael Roberts

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