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ANOTHER (NERDIER) TAKE ON THE ACMS

I should start by saying that Holly Gleason has doubtless forgotten more about country than I’ll ever know, and her analysis of the ACMS, which you can—and should—read here, is full of rare insight.

But this nerdy L.A. Jew also had some feelings about the night, so here goes.

First off: Awards shows are tricky to pull off even under ordinary circumstances. To see performers go full-tilt without an audience to give them even a drop of that energy back is weird—like a dress rehearsal in outer space. But damn if the performers on this show didn’t raise the roof anyhow.

Perhaps even more strikingly, the show had a thoughtful and poignant point of view. Rather than steer clear of politics, it dove right in: acknowledging the “two pandemics” (COVID and social injustice), putting a spotlight on PTSD and America’s betrayal of its promises—and demanding better from us all.

Speaking of COVID, the visual of Old Dominion filing out in their masks spoke volumes about the present moment, and answered the disinformation of deniers without cant.

Of course, because this is country music, the answers offered to these plagues were love, family, community, faith—and good times. Which the show delivered in excess of my expectations.

Mickey Guyton’s gorgeous rendition of the fearlessly truthful “What Are You Going to Tell Her?” has justly occasioned the most chatter. The fact that Guyton, a Black woman singing a bitterly honest song about the persistence of glass ceilings, was the breakout of the evening tells you a lot about the ongoing evolution of Nashville. (And yes, the Grammy buzz on her just got deafening.)

So does the gospel-inflected uplift of Kane Brown’s equality anthem “Worldwide Beautiful,” which echoed a theme that may be at least as old as The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” but still connected emotionally.

Eric Church, whose spiky, edgy sensibility is a constant bulwark against complacency and saccharine sentiment, stunned with the uncompromising “Stick That in Your Country Song,” following a pointed use of Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag.”

Tenille Townes brought an earthy urgency to her timely “Somebody’s Daughter” (which will become even more timely, I fear, as homelessness spikes in the near future) that reminded me of Melissa Etheridge and was a bracingly direct expression of universal humanity.

In a subtler way, Maren Morris captured something about what country music can do with “To Hell & Back,” a great song about mature love and committing to one another, flaws and all.

And when Miranda Lambert, resplendent in blue, sang “Bluebird” at the Bluebird, it was a deep moment for everyone who is struggling to persevere in these painful times—and especially those of us who feel bereft and blue without the medicine of live music. But we are keeping a bluebird in our hearts, as the song instructs us to do.

Taylor Swift, seated and solo for the teen-love odyssey “betty,” reminded us that—without the spangles and spectacle of superstardom—she is an unparalleled storyteller.

Were there a lot of songs about whiskey and beer and trucks and dancing in bars? Yes. Yes, there were. But part of what made the ACMs so effective is that the more sober messages were mixed with pure, exuberant, even goofy pleasure.

And I must say a word here about Carrie Underwood’s freakin’ stratospheric medley of classic songs by great women of country. Several were “approved” classics, but you could feel Carrie’s joy exploding when she dipped into crowd-pleasing radio monsters like “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and Dolly’s “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That.” You might call it Ph.D-level karaoke; her vaulting voice is positively thrilling. If that segment didn’t say “Entertainer” in gigantic flashing lights, I don’t know what would.

There was so much more. Watching Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen consolidate their well-deserved commercial gains, it pleased me to imagine them getting a little older (as artists ARE ALLOWED TO DO IN NASHVILLE), as I imagine their grit and authenticity will, like fine booze, age quite gracefully. Gabby Barrett made the raw emotion of “I Hope” quite tangible and her development, too, will likely be a joy to witness.

And for pure ear-candy enjoyment, there was Dan + Shay’s “I Should Probably Go to Bed,” delivered in a stately, piano-only version that recalled their breakout Grammy moment with “Tequila.” The song somehow threads the thundering, theatrical pop melodicism of Queen through the needle of an intimate country ballad, and if there’s a better male vocalist than Shay Mooney right now, I don’t hear him.

Keith Urban and P!nk offered kindred joy with new duet “One Too Many,” an engaging springboard for more absolutely stellar singing. And Urban? He was a genial and sensitive host who also happens to be a superb vocalist, graceful accompanist and shredding guitarist. Talk about an MVP. I’m told he also smells great, but I can’t personally confirm. It’ll be interesting to see what else he delivers with his new album.

At the risk of repeating myself: These full-on, powerfully emotional, rippingly fun musical moments were bestowed without benefit of a live audience—and part of their bittersweet allure came from feeling that absence. But they also felt like a drink of water in a burning desert. More, please.

 

 

 

 

 

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