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ACM AWARDS:
DISSOLVING BARRIERS

Thomas Rhett, Dan + Shay, Chris Stapleton and Luke Bryan each won a third trophy—for Top Male, Duo, Album and Entertainer of the Year, respectively—at the 2021 ACM Awards. Maren Morris picked up her second Top Female and first Song of the Year for “The Bones,” while Old Dominion notched their fourth consecutive Top Group.

For first-time winners Kane Brown, who took Video for “Worldwide Beautiful” and Carly Pearce, who got Vocal Event for “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” the thrill of victory wasn’t on camera. Presented days before the show, Pearce’s out-of-her-skin-response to winning Single of the Year with Lee Brice demonstrated the power of overwhelming emotion in taking home an award.

Still, more than the awards, there was the music—25 performances in all. Most were staged at the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, the Bluebird Café and the iconic Station Inn, as well as the pedestrian bridge over the Cumberland River for Ashley McBryde’s romping “Martha Divine” and a march down Lower Broadway with horns and drums for Little Big Town’s “Wine, Beer, Whiskey.”

In a year of diversity—15-time ACM winner Keith Urban returned as host with help from Top New Female nominee Mickey Guyton—there were four Black nominees, one openly gay nominee and an all-female Single of the Year category. But just as powerful were the variations on country music that populated the show.

Whether Carrie Underwood’s torrid gospel medley featuring Cece Winans, which brought faith and power to the coldest hearts, Dierks Bentley’s heavy bluegrass take on U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” featuring The War & Treaty and Larkin Poe or the ragged, good-timey raver of the fairly pregnant Elle King and Miranda Lambert’s show-opening “Drunk in a Bar,” it’s about dissolving barriers and creating musical hybrids that find common ground across race, gender and genre.

That sort of unadulterated hybrid vigor could also be applied to straight-up country music. Alan Jackson reprised “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” to set up “Always Be My Baby” from his upcoming Where Have You Gone, while Kenny Chesney’s classic country waltz, “Knowing You,” provided a bed to honor country’s deceased—including ASCAP’s Connie Bradley, Hal Ketchum, KT Oslin, Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker, disc jockey Bob McKay, songwriter/A&R man Larry Willoughby and longtime director Walter Miller, among many others.

There was also a rocking undertow, one that saw the electric guitar-driven piece popularized by Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings leaned into. Urban provided “Tumbleweed” with an actual “neck cam” to capture his solo from the headstock, while Brothers Osborne delivered a stomping “I’m Not for Everyone,” then the extra-jamming “Dead Man’s Curve” during the closing credits.

And to the almost folk roots, there was Stapleton’s “Maggie’s Song” from the Bluebird, with Lambert subbing for wife Morgane Hayes, who was on doula duty. One viewer posted that the song—the best one about a dog who’s crossed the Rainbow Bridge since Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day”—should “come with trigger warnings.”

Barrett’s “The Good Ones” also resonated as a bare-bones truth that needed no gussying up, while Kelsea Ballerini pulled back her typical big-production approach to sit on a stool and perform “half of my hometown” with fellow East Tennessean Chesney. Unadorned, the pair honored their roots and their escape with equal measure.

And that was as much the driver as anything in this second ACM Award” in the time of COVID. With Vanderbilt University Hospital healthcare workers watching, the performers gave everything, knowing the people tuning in missed live music as much as the people playing together were missing out on regular gigs.

Luke Combs, who anchored a Ford trucks/Gibson Guitars program for veterans with PTSD, showed music’s power to heal, while Morris and husband Ryan Hurd turned up the erotic torque with “Chasing You.” Top New Male Jimmie Allen and Brad Paisley delivered a nostalgic “Freedom Was a Highway” that celebrated innocence and how music delivers us.

Though progress has been made, America is a long way from putting acts out on the road. The promise of what might be—whether the limited audience ot the performers in venues used for shows—underscored much of the night. With a long way to go, ACM Director Damon Whiteside teamed with producers RAC Clark and Raj Kapour for a PSA that featured Eric Church, Darius Rucker and McBryde urging fans to get their shots and the facts about the COVID vaccine in an attempt to reach many of the more socially conservative country fans who might be watching.

With an eye to lifting up the genre and America, the Academy of Country Music Awards “delivered a great deal of music, a handful of awards and a sense of demi-normal.” In times like these, it was a strong statement for a genre that’s finding its way with diversity, gender parity and tolerance of the LGBTQ community.

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