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THE ACMS: MOSTLY LIVE AND REALLY REAL

It should’ve been April. It should’ve been Las Vegas. It should’ve been a live audience. It should’ve been a lot of things. But when the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards actually hit the airwaves, the sheer relief of finally getting the music moving, the envelopes opened, the awards that traditionally drop at the top of touring season to the winners was palpable.

A lot went into making the first mostly live awards show work. RAC Clark, Raj Kapoor and Glenn Weiss—alongside recently installed ACM chief Damon Whiteside—figured out a quick cut, three-location, green-screen extravaganza that celebrated The Grand Ole Opry, the teeny songwriter room The Bluebird Café and the Opry’s original home, The Ryman Auditorium.

Hosted by reigning Entertainer of the Year Keith Urban, it was a night of meaning, some reckoning, music and a whole lot of hope. With live music off the table, seeing even the most stripped-down performances by superstars and newcomers demonstrated the electric charge music carries. Seeing Miranda Lambert in haute cowgirl chic with co-writers/fellow artists Luke Dick and Highwoman/solo songwriter Natalie Hemby performing a song about thriving in hard times—literally singing “Bluebird” at the Bluebird with the line “when life gives me lemons, I just squeeze them in my drink”—demonstrates the power of simple and straightforward in our musical desert. Her Vocal Event win—with Ashley McBryde, Elle King, Caylee Hammack and Tenille Townes on a script-flipping version of Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell In Love”—brought Lambert’s total to 35, the total most ACM wins.

Equally powerful was Mickey Guyton in an all-white dress on the Opry stage, delivering a Whitney Houston/Beyonce power-vocal rendition of the glass-ceiling reckoning “What Are You Going To Tell Her?” with only Urban on piano. With the sustain pedal rising and falling with the song’s intention, it was a moment of social awareness that didn’t bludgeon, but gutted you with the empty promises made to young girls.

At their best, the ACMS felt bright, hopeful. Luke Combs, who took Album for What You See Is What You Get (confessing onstage, “it was hell making it”) and Top Male Artist, was the epitome of awestruck. Talking about wanting to play the Bluebird when he’d moved to town, he brought regular-guy romanticism to “Better Together.”

Five months ago, two awards would’ve been massive. At this point, it seems almost skimpy given the North Carolinian’s dominance of the genre over the last 12 months.

Carrie Underwood established dominance from her scalding “Before He Cheats” in the all-Entertainer open that featured each nominee doing a snippet of a prior hit. Later, she would do a tribute to the women of the Opry, and offer a masterclass in country, performing classics by Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Martina McBride, Reba and Dolly Parton with an authority and vocal command that was in a whole other league.

When she was announced as the second Entertainer of the Year, it felt like justice after last fall’s CMA Awards snub. Between her high-impact live show, move into co-producing and co-writing large pieces of her album, books, charities, Monday Night Football and more, the woman picking up her third ACM EOTY is a high-wattage woman deserving the crown.

Yet, as with so much of 2020, the unthinkable happened. For the first time in ACM history, Entertainer was a tie. Thomas Rhett, who’d also won Video for “Remember You Young,” was the other winner. Earlier, he’d shared the Ryman stage with Jon Pardi, demonstrating a friendly charisma on “Beer Can’t Fix.” Clearly a surprise to many, it marked a major milestone for the second-generation country music star.

Old Dominion, who performed a medley of hits, picked up their third Group of the Year and were clearly surprised by their Song of the Year win for “One Man Band.” Mathew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen and Brad Tursi also received individual awards as the writers.

Equally surprised was Female Artist of the Year Maren Morris, winning for the first time in a category that included Underwood, Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Kelsea Ballerini. The “Bones” singer, clad in plunging black Manuel and neon-lime stilettos, closed her speech with the admonition “...and Vote!”

Without being heavy-handed, the conscience point was made over and over again. Not only did Kane Brown have a choir—properly distanced—in the balcony of the Ryman for “Worldwide Beautiful,” Darius Rucker did a wonderful job setting up a short piece on The National Museum of African American Music.

In addition to Tim McGraw’s pro-women intro to Guyton’s performance, Underwood’s medley and Runaway June’s package for the Academy’s Lifting Lives charity, there was, by design, plenty of girl power in the house. Townes also delivered a searing “Somebody’s Daughter,” underscoring that every hooker, junkie, stripper or homeless kid is also someone’s child.

Juggling venues, often with the help of drone footage of the city and the building’s exteriors for cutaways, created an homage to the city the Academy of Country Music was formed as an alternative to. Long leaning into its West Coast, more progressive bona fides, they teased the feeling from each building to showcase the best of what the artists found to feed them. Just as importantly, no cues were missed, no mics were left closed and the jumping from site-to-site was flawless.

Even the theoretically impossible was done with a wink and a nudge. For Blake Shelton, who won Single of the Year for “God’s Country,” being in California created the opportunity to “play” with production realities. Sitting on a stool before a green screen, he and Gwen Stefani clicked to swipe a backdrop of The Bluebird to serve as local color for their “Happy Anywhere.”

Johnny Cash made a brief appearance, his thunderous voice reciting “The Rugged Old Flag” to kick off Eric Church’s snarling “Put That In Your Country Song,” a slashing takedown of Hallmark country with superficial values and faux realities.

Taylor Swift returned after a seven-year absence to perform “Betty,” stripped down and echoing the innocence her original ACM performance of “Tim McGraw.” For the woman who just spent six weeks at the top of the chart for folklore, the homecoming reminds the world she is first and foremost a songwriter.

Twenty-four performances overall, 46 songs in total. In a world where live music has been taken from us, the buffet runneth over. Whether young artists like Best New Female Townes, Gabby Barrett, Jimmy Allen, Morgan Wallen or Best New Male Riley Green, or veterans Florida Georgia Line, Tim McGraw or Luke Bryan, they came in varying forms without the bells, whistles, pyro, smoke machines, explosions, moving stages and crazy dance numbers, acrobats, aerialists and assorted folks onstage.

Was it odd having no one in the house? Yes. Was the energy missed? Absolutely. Was Keith Urban a genuinely good host despite the weirdness of the humanity vacuum? Totally. With his strength of humanity, kindness and musical curiosity, he was always there to set the tone an audience reaction might’ve provided.

Still, it was music. It was honest. It was real.

It was also a snapshot of where the country music industry was seven months ago when the voting started. A lot has happened since quarantine. Does this reflect what will happen when CMAs happen in November? Perhaps not, but it sure is a wonderful way to remember the vibrant place the music was in the first quarter, and revel in the award winners, the performances and what music provides us.

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