For all the history being made—it was the first awards show to be livestreamed on Amazon Prime Video and just the second to take place in a football stadium—what made the 2022 Academy of Country Music Awards stand out were the breakthrough moments for women, people of color and LGBTQ artists.

Perhaps the biggest news: After 17 years, nine consecutive Top Female Vocalist and five Album of the Year awards, Miranda Lambert wins her first Entertainer of the Year. With the female desert still a factor at Country radio, the fiery blonde, who tours tactically and pushes creative barriers—she was the first artist since the start of the pandemic to play indoors with a record-setting five nights at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth—brought this award back to its true definition: celebrating an entire career. Lambert also took Video of the Year for the wedding-gone-wrong tune “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” romp with Elle King, while The Marfa Tapes, a literal recording of campfire sessions with songwriters Jon Randall and Jack Ingram, was nominated for Album of the Year.

“This one goes out to all the serious girl singer/songwriters who’ve put all their blood, sweat and tears into their guitar strings,” Lambert said from London, where she’s anchoring the C2C Festival. “This one’s for you.”

Lainey Wilson, the 29-year-old from Baskin, La., population 264, won not just Top New Female but also the coveted Song of the Year award for her breakthrough single, “Things a Man Oughta Know.” After thanking her Lord and Savior for “putting this dream on my heart,” she pointed out that even more than telling a man who to treat women, her song was about “how we should all treat each other.”

Leave it to hostess with the mostest Dolly Parton, looking like the sexiest mirror ball ever in a skintight jumpsuit covered in reflecting icicles, to open the show with the same kind of sentiment. Explaining she’d rather “pass a kidney stone than be political,” she offered, “I’d like to dedicate this show to our brothers and sisters in the Ukraine” and stressed the importance of peace around the globe.

Co-host Gabby Barrett’s version of Lee Ann Womack’s 20-year-old “I Hope You Dance” echoed with a hope for humanity as a whole as much as for a departed lover. Honoring the award-sweeping song, Barrett connected directly with the genre’s past.

Coming together was an undertone to the proceedings. Morgan Wallen, who had the biggest album of all formats in 2021, was recognized with the Album of the Year Award for Dangerous: The Double Album. Having been sidelined for the last year after uttering an egregious word to a friend at the end of a 72-hour bender, Wallen had been taken out of the conversation. In a world where Joe Rogan is a split decision, the hillbilly kid whose music expresses coming of age for a new generation of average kids in the flyover states was overwhelmingly recognized by the industry after spending the last 12 months as a hot potato.

Also thanking his Lord and Savior, this son of a Baptist preacher was both humble and defiant in his acceptance speech. Acknowledging the writers, producers, team and especially every fan, he was a man resolved. HARDY, the artist/songwriter whose been a key factor in Wallen’s success, won Songwriter of the Year.

Old Dominion won their fifth Group of the Year Award. Brothers Osborne took back Duo; thanking the Academy while noting, “A week ago, they pulled our single from Country radio [because it was deemed to not be working], so we needed this. A little bit of wind in our sails.”

Backstage after the show, John and TJ Osborne acknowledged that, for the musically formidable brothers who burn it down live, awards are the game-changers that have allowed them to build a career. Not sorry for speaking truth to power on Prime Video, they expressed real gratitude for their wins.

Carly Pearce and Chris Stapleton repeated their CMA Female and Male Vocalist of the Year Awards. Pearce and Ashley McBryde took Vocal Event before the show, then delivered a startlingly intimate “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” in Vegas’ cavernous Allegiant Stadium. Stapleton’s searing “Watch You Burn” took aim at those terrorists and shooters who aim to destroy the fabric of our lives. His intensity was fueled, no doubt, by both the mass shooting at the Highway 91 Festival in 2017 and other acts of violence around the world.

If not overtly declaring itself “woke,” the Academy went out of its way to find places for Amazon Breakout Artist BRELAND, Blanco Brown, Mickey Guyton, Americana sensation Brittney Spencer and Kane Brown, who, in spite of only being nominated alongside Chris Young on “Famous Friends,” is emerging as a genuine force in the genre. Meanwhile, co-host Jimmie Allen came off as one of the night’s biggest stars, announcing his arrival in silver leather. If not a mission for the ACM/APV/MRC, the year’s show was an instance in which artists of color were present in a way that opened the possibilities inside country music in a meaningful way.

For Broken Bow, it was an exceptional night. Beyond Allen’s co-hosting work, his star turn on “Down Home” and Wilson’s two awards, Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood saw “If I Didn’t Love You” win Single of the Year but won even bigger with a full-on classic-rock performance that featured a hydraulically lifted piano, a smoke-filled stage and Underwood descending from the ceiling.

Matching Underwood’s vocal kinetics, Kelly Clarkson stood onstage and delivered a bravura performance of Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” that saw the Country Music Hall of Fame diva invoke Whitney Houston’s game-changing rendition when she walked out. Simple, heartfelt, it cut to the gut of what country music is at its essence.

Given the short time, the massive venue, the challenge of fielding a full house in the age of COVID, the 2022 ACM Awards delivered a fast-paced and freight-packed two hours of music, with windows built in for delivering awards. Far from sold out, making for camera shots that couldn’t miss empty seats, the show was nonetheless a career night for all the winners—many taking major awards for the first time.

Sadly, the Academy’s press room had little respect for the performers and winners, cycling artists through the space during performances, including Clarkson’s, while nearly failing to show the media the Entertainer of the Year Award. Ultimately, they cut Lambert’s speech short for the assembled journalists instead of holding the on-deck winner for two minutes to allow the entire speech—and this was a first-time Entertainer win for a woman who has won every major award the ACMs can give out.

New partners. New venues. New priorities.

With the morning after falling on International Women’s Day, to see Lambert, Wilson, Underwood, King, Pearce and McBryde collectively walk away with eight awards—including Entertainer, Song, Single, Video, Female and Event—shows the importance of women in a genre where “research” suggests there is a limited space on the radio or little desire to hear them. With “Drunk (and I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” and “Never Wanted” just hitting the Top 10 months into their journey, this begs a question about fans, research and terrestrial radio.

As for Wallen, whose cleanup on aisle nine has been frustrating for everyone, his musical impact speaks to an entirely different reality than people in the media centers understand. His success in 2021 despite of being shut out of radio, playlists and awards opportunities came from songs about chasing the girl, losing the girl and trying to find oneself in the process.

There was no malice in Wallen’s utterance, no punching down on a marginalized person. The people consuming the music understood, recognized a drunken mistake for what it was – and they kept listening. Maybe listening with our hearts and across the culture differences to understand instead of merely to judge is the key to it all.

To those ends, this year’s ACM Awards spoke volumes. To bring people together, to find grace and to expand a format choked with dudes singing about trucks, girls, beers and bonfires might be the key to moving into a future that has room for a whole lot more diversity and strength.

Photos, from top: The scene at Allegiant Stadium; Gabby, Dolly and Jimmie co-hosting; Brittney Spencer "Boots" up a classic with Brothers Osborne; Carrie Underwood up above; Kelly Clarkson belts a Dolly song that "Will Always" get an ovation.

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