Welcome to the 2016 Academy of Country Music Awards from Las Vegas! The ACMs like to bill themselves as the “fun” country awards show. Well, we’ll be the judge of that! Your hosts are Dierks Bentley (making his debut in this role) and Luke Bryan (who has co-hosted for four years now, and seems no more adept at reading the teleprompter after all this time).
Your performers tonight are…many. In fact, there are so many performers that the ACM has bumped five of the thirteen award categories devoted to performing artists and their music to pre-telecast. And it’s an open question how long it will take for the ACM telecast to give out its first award of the night. I think it’ll be 45 minutes into the broadcast. Who’s got the over?
Of course, the increasing bloc-voted shenanigans at these award shows are such that de-emphasizing the awards aspect in favor of performances is not necessarily a bad thing. Basically, this is a time of year that is the measure of the extent to which the dominant bloc was able to flex its muscles. The nominations are such that in several high-profile categories, William Morris Endeavor Agency is all but guaranteed to be a winner and the only suspense is in which WME client received its backing this time. But hey, perhaps we’re due for an upset or two. For a rundown of the nominations and an illustration of how the William Morris Endeavor Agency was all over them (to the detriment of all but one female artist), see this post.
Back back to the performances! Of blog interest, we have Carrie Underwood set to deliver a dramatically-staged performance of her dark new single, “Church Bells.” Nashville Star and The Voice will collide when their respective winners Chris Young and Cassadee Pope perform their duet “Think Of You.” Meanwhile Blake Shelton and Keith Urban will perform their recently-debuted singles “Came Here to Forget” and “Wasted Time,” respectively. Then there are the collaborations: Dolly Parton and Katy Perry is a megatsar match guaranteed to deliver on visuals and kitsch, Nick Jonas returns to the ACMs for the second straight year, this time to perform with Kelsea Ballerini, Miranda Lambert will cover ZZ Top’s “Tush” with backing from Keith Urban and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and the always-awesome Little Big Town will pair with Trombone Shorty.
Also performing: Jason Aldean (his just-debuted new lead single, “Lights Come On”), Dierks Bentley (“Somewhere on a Beach”), Luke Bryan (who will open the show with his new single, “Huntin’, Fishin’ & Lovin’ Every Day”), Cam (who will play her gorgeous breakthrough smash “Burning House”), Kenny Chesney (new lead single “Noise”), Eric Church (“Record Year”), Brett Eldredge (“Drunk On Your Love”), Florida-Georgia Line, Sam Hunt (“Make You Miss Me”), Charles Kelley (“Lonely Girl”), Tim McGraw (who will play the wonderful Lori McKenna-penned hit, “Humble & Kind”), Old Dominion, Thomas Rhett (who’s set to do his best Ed Sheeran impersonation for his smash “Die A Happy Man”), Chris Stapleton (“Fire Away”), and Cole Swindell.
So join us for what is sure to be an eventful night, won’t you? It’s going to be fun!
Award winners announced already:
New Male Vocalist Of The Year: Chris Stapleton (I had thought WME might back somebody else since he’s likely to win Male Vocalist & Album. But maybe we’re looking at a Stapleton sweep akin to what happened at the CMAs. Stapleton is far and away the most acclaimed nominee in this category, and his sales on his one solo album dwarf the career sales of his fellow nominees. So in that sense, Stapleton is the obvious winner.)
New Female Vocalist Of The Year: Kelsea Ballerini (While there was a WME-repped nominee in RaeLynn, this was realistically a race between two CAA clients: Cam, who had one of 2015’s best-reviewed country albums and the biggest female hit released in 2015 in the Grammy and ACM-nominated “Burning House,” and Kelsea. Kelsea, whose singer/songwriter marketing strategy is closely following that of Taylor Swift (and who has scored backing from Taylor), has established herself as a hitmaker and a rising star, even if both her #1 radio hits have required intensive investment from her billionaire-owned label without generating blockbuster sales (for informative context on her label, which is also Kellie Pickler’s label, scroll to the top of this Grady Smith tweetstorm).
There’s some internet chatter predicting that fatigue with Miranda’s Female Vocalist streak combined with Black River’s money and the marketing efforts of Kelsea and her team will help Kelsea pull an upset in the Female Vocalist category this year, even though her commercial and artistic impact has been nowhere near that of Carrie Underwood’s. I’d be surprised if Kelsea’s team wanted the “too soon”/”undeserved” backlash that would come with a Female Vocalist win this year, but she is certainly positioning herself as a future winner.)
New Vocal Group/Duo Of The Year: Old Dominion (This was realistically a three-act race between Maddie & Tae, whose breakthrough and biggest hit “Girl In A Country Song” peaked in December 2014 followed by a critically-acclaimed debut album and t10 hit in “Fly,” Brothers Osborne, who are riding their 1st hit and a well-reviewed debut album and whose style is most representative of where mainstream country’s trending and Old Dominion. Old Dominion is comprised of songwriters who, much like Chris Stapleton, have spent years providing smashes for the likes of Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney, The Band Perry, Tyler Farr and Craig Morgan, and that’s probably what put them over the top here.)
Video Of The Year: Eric Church and John Peets for “Mr. Misunderstood.” In accepting the award, Eric Church cracked that this is the cheapest Video of the Year ever.
— ACM Awards (@ACMawards) April 1, 2016
Could this signal a very good night for Eric Church? He has, perhaps not coincidentally, finally started doing press to promote his album, the highly acclaimed Mr. Misunderstood, whose 11/3/2015 surprise release was upstaged by Chris Stapleton’s CMA breakthrough. On the other hand, this could just be a consolation prize.
Vocal Duo Of The Year: Florida-Georgia Line (There was a lot of chatter that sentiment could drive Joey & Rory to a win, but it wasn’t to be. Florida-Georgia Line’s commercial impact still dwarfs that of the other nominees for now. Given their punching bag status among many critics and industry watchers though, it seems likely that voters will embrace a viable alternative to unseat them when one emerges.)
Vocal Event Of The Year: Miranda Lambert featuring Little Big Town, “Smokin’ & Drinkin’.” Well, this is noteworthy because the song wasn’t a hit (it peaked outside the t30) nor was it a real critical darling of a record. The song beat out a smash in “Home Alone Tonight” (Luke Bryan and LBT’s Karen Fairchild) and the song that most thought was the happy medium – a hit that was respected enough as a song to be nominated by the ACM’s committee of songwriting professionals for Song Of The Year, “Raise ‘Em Up” (Keith Urban and Eric Church). Odds of this just being a consolation prize for Miranda are pretty low.
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Co-hosts Dierks Bentley and Luke Bryan banter as Dierks rehearses the wrong lines of the song Luke will be opening with. Dierks is set to join Luke for this performance of his new single
Completely Cliche-Free Original Representation Of Country Music “Huntin’, Fishin’ & Lovin’ Every Day.” Luke launches into a typically genial performance, and just as Dierks is about go out and join him, he gets upstaged by Blake Shelton, who grabs the mic and shows up instead. Let’s hope this is not a recurring event but obviously, everybody wanted to make it known that all is peachy-swell between Blake and the ACMs.
Once Luke is through, he introduces Blake for a performance of his new single, “Came Here To Forget.” Blake sounds tight and seems to be staring quite pointedly at somebody in the audience. Presumably not Gwen, since I imagine the cameras would be showing her if she were there. Blake’s band is greyed out and Blake is the only one in color. It’s a bit of a colorless song and well, maybe it wasn’t the easiest for Blake to get through it.
Luke & Dierks take the stage for the intro, but they barely get a word out before Blake stagecrashes to wish them the best. All planned, but the messaging is a bit much and maybe we should let this year’s hosts have their moment? Luke and Dierks take it away with banter about how Luke had been hoping for a host with great hair and hits, shout out to Carrie Underwood, but he got Dierks instead. Heh. They welcome us to the show, and Dierks advocates for the shipper name “Lierks.” No. That silliness having fallen flat, they turn to the subject of Tim McGraw‘s fit boy and joke that his guns have names, “Humble” and “Kind.” Okay.
Next, they move to the phenomenon that has taken over country music since November 2015: Chris Stapleton. So undeniable has been his breakout has been such that everybody’s trying to take credit for it. Cue commentary from the likes of Jason Aldean, Thomas Rhett and Charles Kelley proclaiming their Chris Stapleton bonafides (audio fail during Charles Kelley’s bit? More fun to imagine him launching into a series of expletives). Leave it to Carrie to deliver the punchline when she claims to have been wearing a sparkly Chris Stapleton t-shirt since 1978. She was born in 1983, of course. But instead of noting that, they note that that’s the year Chris Stapleton was born. Our hosts give the room the opportunity to register its appreciation for Chris Stapleton by inviting everybody who wants to take credit for his success to stand up for him. And everybody except the man himself and his wife does.
Next up, Old Dominion performs their current hit “Snapback,” which is about adult country acts trying to be all cool and hip with the lingo.
Luke & Dierks introduce Kenny Chesney, who performs his new lead single “Noise,” which is about how social media, 24-hour cable news and constantly being plugged in leaves us overwhelmed and crowds out our unique dreams and identities. High-minded intent, ordinary song.
Wow, the first award of the night comes 25 minutes into the broadcast! Von Miller and Jana Kramer present the ACM for Song Of The Year to “Nobody To Blame,” written by Bobby Bales, Ronnie Bowman and Chris Stapleton. Bowman accepts with a particularly sweet story about how when he was 14 and living with his mother in a mobile home, she asked him to write a song. And that’s what he has been doing since.
Chris Young and Cassadee Pope both sound understandably and extremely nervous for their first lines of their t10 duet “Think of You,” and their harmonies are initially not quite in tune. Things get more on pitch as their performance wears on, though they never register as much more than stiff in their stage presence.
A poorly integrated albeit well-intentioned memorial tribute to the likes of David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Lemmy interrupts Eric Church‘s perfectly good performance of his excellent current single “Record Year,” a song that would have stood on its own. Conceptually, it made sense, but the execution didn’t work so well.
Co-host Dierks Bentley is up to perform his current hit single “Somewhere on the Beach.” You wouldn’t know it from this song, but he’s a smart, interesting artist more often than not. He’s in the middle of a crowd for the performance, which is appropriate for the sing-along aspect, but the fact that he is surrounded by women for a song that is a bitter kiss-off to an ex is a bit bizarre.
Cam, clad in her signature yellow, is up to perform her poignant “Burning House.” This is how you cut through with a ballad. A simply gorgeous vocal and she fills the stage. It’s really cool to see Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna, cowriters of “Girl Crush” singing background vocals here.
The ACM Single Of The Year is Thomas Rhett‘s “Die A Happy Man.” He thanks his wife, label, team, etc., in sincere fashion. Doesn’t thank Ed Sheeran for the song template, oddly enough? To be fair, this was country radio’s biggest single in a long while. Still, “Girl Crush” was bigger everywhere except at radio. And “Burning House” was a more interesting success story at radio and beyond.
Luke is back to say that they wanted their next performer to make people think of cuddly puppies, romantic walks on the beach and various niceties, but instead they got Jason Aldean. I have to slow-clap that one, a nice riff on Aldean’s unlikeability. Aldean is up to perform his new single “Lights Go On,” a typical midtempo rocker for him about working hard and letting loose. Catchy, but we’re at the point where if you’ve heard one Jason Aldean single, you’ve pretty much heard them all.
Dierks urges more cheers for Jason before introducing Garth Brooks live from his Ottawa concert. Garth lets loose a howl before presenting the ACM for Album Of The Year (via satellite) to Chris Stapleton for Traveller. The sweep is on! Stapleton is joined by producer Dave Cobb. Stapleton thanks his wife and the industry, Cobb thanks his family, God and more.
Next up, we hear Cole Swindell in an Autotune-free acoustic version of his #1 single, “You Should Be Here.” This is a bro’s version of a meaningful song. Swindell wrote this about his father, who passed away suddenly in 2013. Not a terribly eloquent or beautifully-crafted tune but it’s a hit and I’ll take it over Cole’s debut album creepfests.
The bro-fest continues apace with Brett Eldredge performing “Drunk On Your Love,” his version of trying to be all contemporary and rhythmic instead of showcasing his soulful voice. He makes his way through the audience before taking the stage.
Luke introduces Keith Urban by referring to his full award case. Hm. When I think Keith Urban, I do not think “awards juggernaut.” But OK. Instead of Thursday’s “ganjocaster,” Keith is on banjo, delivering his usual energetic, measured and comfortable performance of the beat-driven “Wasted Time.” I cannot explain why the world is on fire behind him.
Dierks jabs Luke for losing Vocal Event Of The Year to the group about to perform. Fun fact: Luke was nominated in that category with one of the members of that group! Little Big Town is up with Trombone Shorty to jam on their soulful album track, “Stay All Night.” This is fun! And it’s a nice affirmation that Jimi Westbrook is back vocally after his vocal cord surgery (he shares lead with Phillip Sweet). Country radio identifies LBT by Karen Fairchild lead vocals, and she truly is an exceptional singer. Not well-enough recognized sometimes is that all of the members of LBT are exceptional singers, as proven here.
The producers probably don’t hate Kelsea Ballerini, which is why they scheduled a commercial break instead of making her follow Little Big Town. She starts with nervous clips of her 1st hit “Love Me Like You Mean It” (what was the point of this?) and “Peter Pan.” After dodging some falsetto and generally sounding off, Kelsea gathers some strength as the performance wears on. Nick Jonas joins her on guitar and some not very pleasant-sounding ad-libbing at the end.
Little Big Town introduces Tim McGraw to sing “Humble & Kind,” a sweet message from an elder to youth written by the amazing Lori McKenna. The song speaks for itself, so check it out. Tim is joined by a choir that sounds like kids but also includes adults of a variety of ethnic backgrounds and professions. I like this song and the inclusive heart of the song’s presentation too much to worry about tokenism.
Somehow, not only does Charles Kelley snag a solo performance for a new song at an awards show where he is not nominated, he manages placement in what is often the highest rated half-hour of these shows? Maybe that won’t be the case this year with The Walking Dead season finale airing at the same time. Anyway, “Lonely Girl” sounds fine and fits into the retro soul-pop thing that seems to be working at country radio right now.
Darius Rucker and Martina McBride offer a simple, classy tribute to Joey Feek (to whom the crowd gives a standing ovation) before presenting the ACM for Vocal Group Of The Year to Little Big Town. Surprisingly shut out for “Girl Crush” tonight, they were already winners for Vocal Event and they now have a televised award to add to their haul. They thank Chris Stapleton for not being a group. Heh.
As we cut to commercial, Cassadee Pope is basking in the moment with Chris Young, recounting how the crowd stood for them and how Charles (Kelley?) said they should start a duo. Chris Young indulges her but doesn’t seem keen?
Capping off the 2nd hour, Carrie Underwood storms the stage with a drum-heavy, dramatic and fierce rendering of the revenge drama that is her new single “Church Bells.” This is a command performance. The combination of her high heels and stairs always makes me nervous for Carrie, but she handles two staircases without missing a beat. Vocals on point, triumphing over the loud music and Carrie beats on drums for an interlude for good measure. Well done, Carrie! Not messing around.
The ACM producers were also not messing around by scheduling the ACM Award for Female Vocalist Of The Year directly after Carrie’s performance. Predictable in its absurdity, the award goes to Miranda Lambert, who wins this for a Reba-tying 7th consecutive year. She gives a shout out to Carrie, who was the deserving winner this year, as the “perfect vocalist” and “an inspiration” (to their credit, the awards politics have not gotten in the way of a very genuine respect and friendship between Carrie and Miranda) and also encourages rising female talent.
With a light show simulating a turntable on his piano, Sam Hunt performs “Make You Miss Me.” You know who I miss? Hillary Lindsey, who sounds amazing on her background vocals on the studio version.
Next up, Thomas Rhett plays his smash hit, ACM Single Of The Year-winning “Die A Happy Man.” He has a dodgy start, but delivers a competent imitation of the soulful pop star he would rather be.
Miranda Lambert rocks out a perfectly solid if pointless cover of ZZ Top‘s “Tush,” which is heavy on guitar solos by Billy Gibbons and Keith Urban. As overrewarded as Miranda is by the country industry, it is nice to see her have some fun on stage.
Nancy O’Dell presents the ACM for Male Vocalist Of The Year to Chris Stapleton, which means that Stapleton sweeps his televised categories. Stapleton gives a good-natured speech thanking publishers including Chris DuBois who brought him to town and confirming Jason Aldean‘s story about them rocking out together before either made it big.
Katy Perry pays tribute to Dolly Parton and makes her own “big” joke that works better than the evening’s earlier “pair” crack from Dierks Bentley. She narrates a clip about the song “Coat of Many Colors” and the NBC TV movie that was built on it, and presents Dolly with the Tex Ritter Award honoring achievement by a country music movie.
In her acceptance speech, Dolly pays tribute to the cast, with a special shout out to Jennifer Nettles, who isn’t in attendance. In her inimitable, unsummarizable, witty, gracious and generous Dolly way, she thanks everybody associated with success of the TV movie. In short order, she and Katy launch in a medley of “Coat of Many Colors,” “Jolene” (Dolly’s next TV movie project) and “9 to 5.” A performance full of personality and likable individual singing, if not great harmonizing. The ladies made it work, but it’s hard not to question whether this would have worked better with the woman who presented this performance, nominee Kacey Musgraves, or the aforementioned Jennifer Nettles. For that matter, Katy has been quite supportive of Kacey and it would have been pretty great to see all three ladies performing together.
After a commercial break, Florida-Georgia Line submits its bid to be taken seriously via their current single “Confession.” The song itself is not terrible. The pretense that any of the harmonies are live is.
The ACM producers continue to have fun by following the FGL performance with one of country music’s all-time great voices and the man of the night, Chris Stapleton. He delivers “Fire Away” with wife, crazy-amazing singer in her own right, Morgane Stapleton providing gorgeous harmonies. Mesmerizing to listen to. And if you haven’t seen the heart-rending video for this song, check it out:
The night’s final award is presented by Tom Hiddleston, the British actor who plays Hank Williams in I Saw The Light. He graciously acknowledges feeling a little out of place at the show but is impressed by how much these country folks know how to have a good time. He presents the ACM for Entertainer Of The Year to Jason Aldean. It’s a surprise because Aldean is coming off a weak album era and has been surpassed commercially by multi-year winner Luke Bryan. But nobody campaigned harder than Aldean for the award this year, he has always fared better at the ACMs than at the CMAs (see: his three year streak as Male Vocalist, broken tonight) and it appears WME was content to swing things his way to launch his new record.
And that’s the show. An uneven one as you’d expect but not without performance highlights (particularly Cam, Little Big Town, Carrie, Chris Stapleton) and moments (“Humble & Kind”). As for the awards, the story remains the same. William Morris Endeavor Agency clients won 7 out of the 8 televised awards and 10 out of the 13 total awards given to performing artists and their music, in case there was any doubt as to who was voting at this show.