Confusion, disbelief, desperately trying to pretend that things are a little bit normal: That’s basically life in 2020, and pretty much what it was like watching the ACMs. Like all award shows these days, the ACMs were restricted by pandemic-related regulations. That resulted in complicated logistics, including performances spread out across Nashville venues, with singers stationed at the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium and Bluebird Cafe. No audiences allowed.
“This is so weird talking to no one,” said female artist of the year winner Maren Morris, the only star who reminded the audience that there’s an election coming up and they should vote.
Rhett and Underwood triumphed for the top prize over Luke Combs, who won male artist and album of the year. Other nominees in the category included Eric Church, who performed his blistering new single “Stick That in Your Country Song” (preceded by Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag”), and Luke Bryan, who naturally donned a Hawaiian shirt as he sang the truly inescapable “One Margarita.”
Unlike some years, no one dominated the awards: Morris, Rhett and Combs each landed two trophies, along with Old Dominion (group, song of the year) and Tenille Townes (new female artist, music event of the year).
A complete list of winners is below — here are some of the best and worst moments from the three-hour telecast.
Miranda Lambert singing ‘Bluebird’ at the Bluebird
If you have been to Nashville, or just watched ABC’s “Nashville,” you know the Bluebird Cafe is one of those places that everyone insists you must visit. It’s a 90-seat venue that features singer-songwriters sitting in a circle while they tell the stories behind the songs and play them. It’s magical. And of course, currently nonoperational because of the pandemic, so the owner was thrilled to have the venue featured on a national stage. Even better, Lambert played her recent No. 1 single by the same name, accompanied by songwriters Luke Dick and Natalie Hemby, also nominated for group of the year as part of the Highwomen.
Kane Brown’s ‘Worldwide Beautiful’
Brown cleverly got around social distancing requirements at the Opry by having a choir perform in the upper seats, safely spaced apart. It led to a powerful rendition of “Worldwide Beautiful,” his song released this year amid the country’s reckoning over racial injustice and police brutality. “White churches, Black churches, different people, same hearses / It’s kind of hard to fight with each other, laying down in the ground, six under,” Brown sang. “At every show I see my people, they ain’t the same, but they’re all equal.” Brown, who is biracial, has been outspoken about the challenges of being in a genre that is overwhelmingly White.
Taylor Swift’s cameo
Swift officially announced she was leaving the country music genre about six years ago — but that doesn’t mean she can’t return to her roots. Swift’s label is pushing her song “Betty” (from her new album “Folklore”) to country radio, so the pop superstar showed up to sing the tune at the Opry. It was one of the only acoustic performances of the night, as Swift gave a quiet rendition of the song about a teenage love triangle.
Mickey Guyton’s historic performance
With her riveting performance of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” Guyton became the first Black woman to perform her own music at the ACM Awards. Yes, it took until 2020. This year, gatekeepers in the format have realized they can no longer ignore the genre’s extreme racial imbalance. In his monologue at the top of the show, host Keith Urban talked about the fight for “social injustice” and later accompanied Guyton on the piano as she belted out the searing ballad on the stage of the Opry.
Luke Combs’s ‘Better Together’
Combs, who appears incapable of releasing a single that doesn’t go No. 1, has plenty of very upbeat hits to choose from his impressive catalogue, and he performed one of them (“When It Rains It Pours”) during the opening medley with the other entertainer of the year nominees. But for his main performance at the Bluebird, he went with his most understated tune: “Better Together,” an acoustic track about his wife, Nicole. In a show filled with rollicking drinking songs, it was refreshing for Combs to showcase something quiet.
Morgan Wallen’s ‘Whiskey Glasses’
Speaking of rollicking drinking songs ... even two years after its release, Morgan Wallen’s smash “Whiskey Glasses” is still undeniably catchy, even as one of many drinking anthems in the night, such as Kelsea Ballerini’s “Hole in the Bottle” and Rhett and Jon Pardi’s “Beer Can’t Fix.”
Carrie Underwood’s medley
Country music award shows love a good medley of legendary artists, but usually they involve more than one performer. This year, that was clearly impossible, so Underwood took on the task herself with the hits of iconic female Opry members, including Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” Barbara Mandrell’s “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” Dolly Parton’s “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That,” Reba McEntire’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and Martina McBride’s “Broken Wing.”
The gender imbalance on display yet again
While it was an improvement over last year, the ACMs once again showcased an unfortunate spotlight on country’s lack of opportunities for women. Of the 13 trophies, female artists received four, and only two (Underwood and Morris) were televised wins. It was particularly noticeable when men won five categories in a row: duo (Dan + Shay), group (Old Dominion), song (Old Dominion), single (Blake Shelton) and album (Luke Combs). When asked about the continued imbalance backstage, Underwood said the format has been “taking steps in the right direction,” but “you can’t have too much of a good thing,” so she would like to see more women represented.
Lack of spontaneity, banter, etc.
It’s hard to criticize any television production right now, given the complexity involved in pulling one off, and the ACMs certainly succeeded — however, the mood was as anticlimactic as you would expect when there’s no audience and the stars can’t talk to one another. The closest the show got to a spontaneous moment was when Urban bumped elbows with Underwood and Rhett when they won entertainer(s) of the year; even those interactions were a glimpse of the unexpected small moments that brighten up very long award shows. By the end, we were even missing the lame jokes in the pretaped “comedy” bits.
Seriously, a tie?!
Okay, even if there are protocols to follow, and official vote counts ... a tie? For the most prestigious award? Sure, Underwood and Rhett are very professional and put on happy faces, but was there no other way to work this out beforehand? Maybe a recount? It truly made a very strange year for the ACMs even more odd.
Winners and nominees:
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR
Thomas Rhett — winner (tie)
Carrie Underwood — winner (tie)
FEMALE ARTIST OF THE YEAR
Maren Morris — winner
MALE ARTIST OF THE YEAR
Luke Combs — winner
DUO OF THE YEAR
Brooks & Dunn
Dan + Shay — winner
Florida Georgia Line
Maddie & Tae
GROUP OF THE YEAR
Little Big Town
Old Dominion — winner
NEW FEMALE ARTIST OF THE YEAR
Tenille Townes — winner
NEW MALE ARTIST OF THE YEAR
Riley Green — winner
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
“Center Point Road” Thomas Rhett
“Girl” Maren Morris
“Heartache Medication” Jon Pardi
“What You See Is What You Get” Luke Combs — winner
“Wildcard” Miranda Lambert
SINGLE OF THE YEAR
“God’s Country” Blake Shelton — winner
“One Man Band” Old Dominion
“Rainbow” Kacey Musgraves
“Rumor” Lee Brice
“What If I Never Get Over You” Lady A
SONG OF THE YEAR
“God’s Country” Blake Shelton (written by Devin Dawson, Michael Hardy, Jordan Schmidt)
“One Man Band” Old Dominion (written by Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen, Brad Tursi, Josh Osborne) — winner
“10,000 Hours” Dan + Shay feat. Justin Bieber (written Dan Smyers, Shay Mooney, Justin Bieber, Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, Jessie Jo Dillon, Jordan Reynolds)
“Girl Goin’ Nowhere” Ashley McBryde (written by McBryde and Jeremy Bussey)
“Some Of It” Eric Church (written by Church, Clint Daniels, Jeff Hyde, Bobby Pinson)
VIDEO OF THE YEAR
“God’s Country” Blake Shelton
“One Man Band” Old Dominion
“10,000 Hours” Dan + Shay feat. Justin Bieber
“Remember You Young” Thomas Rhett — winner
“Sugar Coat” Little Big Town
MUSIC EVENT OF THE YEAR
“10,000 Hours” Dan + Shay feat. Justin Bieber
“Dive Bar” Garth Brooks feat. Blake Shelton
“Fooled Around and Fell in Love” Miranda Lambert feat. Maren Morris, Ashley McBryde, Tenille Townes, Caylee Hammack and Elle King — winner
“Old Town Road” Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus
“What Happens in a Small Town” Brantley Gilbert feat. Lindsay Ell