It’s already been one helluva year for awards shows. From Adele’s Album of the Year upset at the Grammys to the Moonlight/La La Land snafu at the Oscars, 2017’s prize parties have dominated the cultural conversation with meme-worthy moments that serve well to distract from, well, everything else that’s going on in the world.
In recent years, those viral moments have started to eclipse the very awards from which they have sprung. From the opening number on, it was clear the producers of the 52nd annual Academy of Country Music Awards were hoping for at least one buzzworthy moment of their own.
Held in Las Vegas, the ACMs are the Golden Globes to the CMAs’ Oscars, the “fun” party where the awards hew more closely to commercial trends and stars can loosen up while hanging out in Sin City. Case in point: Florida Georgia Line’s populist radio hit “H.O.L.Y.” won Single Record of the Year and, in an inspired bit, co-hosts Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley joined the cast of the male revue Thunder From Down Under. The actual ceremony, however, felt decidedly more serious than years past, with a majority of artists opting to perform ballads, and banter from Bryan and Bentley kept to a minimum.
Despite an opening medley that brought together all five nominees for Entertainer of the Year, the audience wasn’t at full attention, as reaction shots showed folks still continuing pre-show chatter well into performances by Jason Aldean (“Lights Come On”) and Bryan (“Move”). That changed quickly, though, when Bryan and Bentley, joined by the Eagles’ Joe Walsh on guitar, paid tribute to Chuck Berry, who died last month. The trio performed the rock & roll icon’s classic “Johnny B. Goode” to rapturous approval from the audience, who, thanks to a couple of searing solos from Walsh, finally seemed to stir.
The first award of the evening, Song of the Year, went to Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man.” If that felt like an upset (“Humble and Kind,” the CMA Song of the Year, seemed all but a shoo-in), it paled in comparison to Rhett’s Male Vocalist of the Year win later in the broadcast, where he bested not only radio juggernauts like Aldean and Bentley, but critical darling Chris Stapleton, too.
Maren Morris, who had already won New Female Vocalist of the Year prior to the broadcast, sang her single “I Could Use a Love Song,” a cut off her 2016 album Hero, and debuted an edgy, short haircut. She returned to the stage later with Rhett to offer the live debut of their collaboration “Craving You,” off Rhett’s upcoming third album.
After shocking Music Row at November’s CMA Awards with their Vocal Duo win, Brothers Osborne kept their upset streak alive by winning the ACM’s Vocal Duo of the Year. Triumphing over Florida Georgia Line, who had already won two awards and were up for Entertainer of the Year, it was an undeniable underdog win. Singer TJ Osborne and guitarist John Osborne returned to the stage for a ferocious, if abbreviated take on current single “It Ain’t My Fault,” a performance that reinforced John’s earlier Vocal Duo acceptance speech send-off: “God bless country music!”
The ACM Awards leaned heavily on ballads, which might have made for a slow-moving show, but Miranda Lambert’s solo acoustic performance of The Weight of These Wings tearjerker “Tin Man” was as electric as any overly produced performance. A true display of raw emotion, Lambert stood beneath a single spotlight and delivered the heart-wrenching tune, before going on to win Female Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year.
Speaking of produced performances, Lady Antebellum came back from their hiatus with a vengeance, bringing along not just a horn section, but the entire UNLV marching band for their feel-good new single “You Look Good.” While the performance itself felt a little forced, the boisterous arrangement was a welcome injection of energy to the night.
Other performances highlights included Brett Eldredge bringing his showman A-game with “Something I’m Good At,” Tim McGraw and Faith Hill taking the crowd to charm school with their duet “Speak to a Girl,” and Chris Stapleton and wife Morgane debuting the new song “Second One to Know,” a crunchy Southern rocker with some serious swagger.
In what was the evening’s strangest turn of events, a CMA-produced project won an ACM award when “Forever Country,” a medley put together by songwriter Shane McAnally for the 50th anniversary of the CMA Awards, won Video of the Year.
The eagerly awaited Florida Georgia Line/Backstreet Boys collaboration was teased throughout the entire show in the same way that Beyoncé’s appearance with the Dixie Chicks was used to keep viewers tuned in throughout last year’s CMA Awards. Compared to the latter’s explosive, subversive performance, though, FGLBSB’s rendition of Dig Your Roots‘ “God, Your Mama, and Me” felt more like a guilty pleasure. But let’s emphasize “pleasure,” because Nick Carter and the boys’ show-stealing rendition of their 1997 mega-hit “Everbody (Backstreet’s Back)” had country stars in the audience seemingly more excited than any performance by their peers. Such is the power of Max Martin.
Jason Aldean would quietly get the night’s last word with a simple, heartfelt speech, winning his second consecutive Entertainer of the Year trophy. That final performance by FGL and BSB, though, was one of the few capable of reaching “moment” status. No doubt the most polarizing eight minutes of the night, it’s also likely to be one of the most memorable from a show that, over the course of its three hours, came just shy of leaving an indelible impression.