Last night’s Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas proved to be full of moments that truly mattered for the deepest of country fans, young and old, hip and behind with the times. I may belong in all these categories, as I’m still very much learning the finer intricacies of songs with deeper meanings, but willing to cheer or dance along with tunes that just mean to have fun. My own evolution as a true fan of the art form was reflected through the evening’s big wins, with congrats to Dan + Shay, Kacey Musgraves, Thomas Rhett and Keith Urban for maintaining a strong gold standard. The very same applies to the musical breaks one can insert into… nearly any awards show, really. And the ACM’s are no exception. The key themes between those star-studded performances shifted between energetic and solemn, but all were genuine, raw, wonderfully professional. Three hours with commercials, half of the awards up for grabs presented live, and 24 separate performances worked in throughout. Among them, 5 amazing showstoppers had emerged, for varying reasons and degrees of showmanship. Unfortunately, the Academy is opting to withhold most clips from the broadcast to be viewed online after the fact, so we’re left with only the songs themselves, at least for now. And that’s plenty OK, especially when the music easily speaks for itself.
5. Thomas Rhett – Look What God Gave Her
An early candidate for Song of the Summer, at least in our genre, Mr. Rhett, all dressed down in his fanciful leather biker jacket, leaped from his seat, possibly mirroring Bradley Cooper at The Oscars, and exploding into his newest smash with energy to spare. Absolutely light on his feet, you’d think he was floating if he had the ability. This is a sure-fire party song, punchy country rock in top form, with dear Thomas as its patron saint. Thank goodness he will be coming to town before summer’s end.
4. Chris Stapleton – A Simple Song
This was one of the more slower, tender moments of the show, Chris dueting closely with wife Morgane. They have worked together on most of their music over the years, but this tune immediately felt most iconic, they were sharing the spotlight together. With a dim moonlight of sorts behind them, no reason why it wouldn’t have been one of the more romantic moments too. It is a sweet song, a potential first-dance favorite and one that’s earned a little extra traction before long.
3. Dierks Bentley/Brandi Carlile – Travellin’ Light
I may have been the most excited to see this number performed live. Miss Carlile, the pride of Ravensdale, WA is still on a roll after her most recent work earned two hard-earned Grammys. And of course, I’ve personally been a fan of her work since high school. Collaborating with one of the first country artists I took a real liking to as a youngster just felt like a wonderful match, and it’s effective. Harmonies were on point, and the atmosphere quite cozy. Yes, this may be a Dierks song first-and-foremost, but when Brandi gets a moment for herself, she does not hold back, exuding a grand passion that had my heart aflutter.
2. Blake Shelton – God’s Country
The latest off of Mr. Shelton’s next album (the man is a creative workhorse), his stage presence cannot be undersold. He is stoic, grounded, focused, he had the audience in a trance through this powerful piece. If one could oversell a little, it serves as an emotional, spiritual revelation that could stop anyone in its tracks to listen closely to the lyrics. It’s a universal piece that doesn’t completely draw inspiration from any specific locale, even if the first place Blake heard it, in demo form, was while working on his alfalfa farm. It’s easy enough to remind the listener that they could, in theory, belong in their own version of “God’s Country”, no matter how heavy the thunder.
1. Carrie Underwood – Southbound
This performance contained perhaps the strongest showmanship throughout, infusing the spirit of an early evening at spring break, likely while attending the ACMs but forgetting one had their tickets. It began with Carrie chilling at a nearby pool on MGM Grand property before running back to the main stage with an army of dancers, unafraid to just enjoy the moment after lengthy maternity leave, and despite a slight migraine. The moment had to happen anyway, her experience as a committed performer remains unchanged. This is bound to be a major hit in the coming weeks, one worthy of consistent play in our rotation as we get closer to those long summer nights when a pool party is completely encouraged, if not required.
Honorable Mention: Chrissie Metz – I’m Standing With You
One of the lead stars of TV’s This is Us is now venturing into music, one of the evening’s more unexpected, and empathic moments. The actress highlighted the lead single from her forthcoming film Breakthrough on the ACM stage, supported by Miss Carrie, Maddie & Tae and others who helped further fill the room with glorious noise. That, and applause, that followed thunderously; let’s hope the actual film can carry that momentum forward.
If any show clips are to be made available, we’ll update. For now, I’m sure there’s a mutual agreement over the range of performances this year’s ACM show had provided viewers. And that’s rightly paired by the confident sense of a close bond between artists, their peers, and the fans. To us here in the Northwest, that couldn’t be more valuable. Last night was a testament to that artistry, just like the night before represented the best of who we are as an outlet for the country music realm. Here’s to the next 12 months of uniting the music and the fan community a little closer, together.