The 2017 Academy Country Music Awards had a few surprises on Sunday night, starting with the fact that the Backstreet Boys (performing with Florida Georgia Line) stole the show — but one other shocker involved Thomas Rhett, the 27-year-old breakout star who landed the male vocalist of the year prize over critically-beloved established artists such as Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban.
“I don’t have a whole lot of words,” Rhett said on stage, looking as stunned as anyone. “Everyone in this category shaped the artist that I am … this is the most amazing award that I’ve ever received in my whole existence.”
Rhett, the son of famed Nashville singer-songwriter Rhett Akins, has a string of No. 1 hits dating back to 2013, and jumped to another level last year with the huge success of the ballad “Die a Happy Man.” The track won song of the year, which landed Rhett his second trophy of the night, tying Florida Georgia Line (single of the year for “H.O.L.Y.” and vocal event for “May We All”) and Miranda Lambert (album of the year for “The Weight of These Wings” and female vocalist).
Meanwhile, Jason Aldean was named entertainer of the year for the second year in a row, beating out Urban, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan and Carrie Underwood. A full list of winners and nominees is below — here are some of the best and worst moments of the ACMs.
* Miranda Lambert and “Tin Man.”
Country award shows really love pyrotechnics and fancy special effects. But sometimes the most effective performance is a stripped-down acoustic ballad. Lambert, singing the haunting track “Tin Man” off her latest album, crushed the song, earning a well-deserved standing ovation. She admitted before the ceremony that she was nervous about playing the tune solo on such a big stage. Clearly, the risk paid off.
* Lady Antebellum and “You Look Good.”
The trio is back from a hiatus with “You Look Good,” a soul-infused single that makes good use of horns, and their first live performance of the track doubled down on the brass section. They looked like they were having a blast, and the audience rocked out as well.
* Miranda Lambert’s speeches.
The artists only got about 20 seconds for speeches, and Lambert was especially effective on both trips to the stage. She won album of the year for her deeply personal record, “The Weight of These Wings,” which she co-wrote in the aftermath of her divorce from Blake Shelton. “I just want to say thank you for letting me use my heartbreak and sharing it with me,” she told the audience. Later, after Lambert landed her eighth (!) trophy in a row for female vocalist, she gave Underwood a hug and then turned the spotlight on her fellow singers. “Carrie can sing me under the table, we’ve agreed on that,” Lambert said. “I’m just glad to see females kicking ass these days.”
* Frank Liddell’s quote.
While on stage accepting the album of the year trophy with Lambert, legendary producer Frank Liddell took to the microphone with a few words of wisdom aimed at aspiring writers. “I just want to thank Miranda for being willing to looking deep in her soul and bringing her life into her art,” he said. “Any young songwriters out there — tell the truth. It’s more interesting.”
* Chris Stapleton’s new song.
It’s still hard to beat a voice like Stapleton’s; the singer took the stage with producer Dave Cobb and his wife, Morgane Stapleton, to debut a new rock song (“Second One to Know”) from his upcoming album.
* Reba McEntire and Lauren Daigle.
Speaking of voices … hard to find one more legendary than Reba, who sang “Back to God” (the single from her new inspirational album) with powerhouse Christian singer Lauren Daigle.
* Sam Hunt’s endearingly awkward gesture.
Love makes you do crazy things, like mortify your fiancée on live television. Hunt strolled out into the audience while singing his ridiculously catchy “Body Like a Back Road” and surprised his fiancée by sitting down and throwing his arm around her, as the cameras eagerly zoomed in. She looked slightly embarrassed, though gamely went along with the sweetly awkward gesture.
* The Backstreet Boys.
You can read about it in more detail here, but let’s just say that Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Nicole Kidman and many more stars lost their minds when BSB and Florida Georgia Line collaborated on “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).”
* Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley’s monologue.
This was the second year with these two Nashville hitmakers as co-hosts; unlike last year, the monologue was painful. The duo didn’t even try to be topical, and instead showed a fake slideshow of their big night out in Las Vegas. There were lame jokes about going fishing in the Bellagio pool; drinking too much while partying (“Did you slip me a roofie?” Bryan asked Bentley); and how they wanted to join the cast of “Thunder From Down Under.” Oh, and there was a gag about participating in Cirque du Soleil. “Those leotards were tighter than your jeans, and that’s saying something,” Bentley told Bryan. (Okay, that one was a little funny.)
* “Die a Happy Man” won song of the year.
We have nothing against this ballad — except it was released in September 2015 and already won single of the year at last year’s ACMs. While the show’s eligibility rules make that a possibility, why ignore five other excellent tunes (“Humble and Kind,” “Vice,” “Kill a Word”) to shower more praise on an old song?
* Brett Eldredge’s unnecessarily complicated number.
Eldredge has a killer voice, yet it was impossible to concentrate as he started singing “Somethin’ I’m Good At” in the back of a suite in the arena and then walked out into the audience, interacting with crowd members and a highly flexible contortionist. Turns out several people were members of the Vegas show “Absinthe,” so they must be happy with the promotion — though it was at the expense of Eldredge’s performance.
* The entertainer of the year medley.
The five entertainer of the year nominees (Aldean, Bryan, Underwood, Urban, Florida Georgia Line) kicked off the show with a medley, a good idea in theory. So why did they perform old singles? If you’re going to have five of the biggest stars in the genre, it would make sense to come up with a more creative use of their time.
* The absence of Shania Twain.
The Las Vegas Journal-Review floated the rumor last week that Twain may appear and perform a new single from her upcoming album. And then … nothing.
Winners and nominees:
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR
Jason Aldean — winner
Florida Georgia Line
MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Thomas Rhett — winner
FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Miranda Lambert — winner
VOCAL DUO OF THE YEAR
Big & Rich
Brothers Osborne — winner
Dan + Shay
Florida Georgia Line
Maddie & Tae
VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR
Eli Young Band
Little Big Town — winner
NEW MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Jon Pardi — winner
NEW FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Maren Morris — winner
NEW VOCAL DUO OR GROUP OF THE YEAR
A Thousand Horses
Brothers Osborne — winner
Dan + Shay
Maddie & Tae
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
“Black” Dierks Bentley
“Dig Your Roots” Florida Georgia Line
“Hero” Maren Morris
“Ripcord” Keith Urban
“The Weight of These Wings” Miranda Lambert — winner
SINGLE RECORD OF THE YEAR
“Blue Ain’t Your Color” Keith Urban
“H.O.L.Y.” Florida Georgia Line — winner
“Humble and Kind” Tim McGraw
“My Church” Maren Morris
“Vice” Miranda Lambert
SONG OF THE YEAR
“Blue Ain’t Your Color” Keith Urban (written by Clint Lagerberg, Hillary Lindsey, Steven Lee Olsen)
“Die A Happy Man” Thomas Rhett (written by Thomas Rhett, Sean Douglas, Joe London) — winner
“Humble and Kind” Tim McGraw (written by Lori McKenna)
“Kill A Word” Eric Church feat. Rhiannon Giddens (written by Eric Church, Luke Dick, Jeff Hyde)
“Tennessee Whiskey” Chris Stapleton (written by Dean Dillon, Linda Hargrove)
“Vice” Miranda Lambert (written by Miranda Lambert, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne)
VIDEO OF THE YEAR
“Fire Away” Chris Stapleton (directed by Tim Mattia)
“Forever Country” Artists of Then, Now & Forever (directed by Joseph Kahn) — winner
“Humble and Kind” Tim McGraw (directed by Wes Edwards)
“Peter Pan” Kelsea Ballerini (directed by Kristin Barlowe)
“Vice” Miranda Lambert (directed by Trey Fanjoy)
VOCAL EVENT OF THE YEAR
“Different For Girls” Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King
“Forever Country” Artists of Then, Now & Forever
“May We All” Florida Georgia Line feat. Tim McGraw — winner
“Setting the World on Fire” Kenny Chesney feat. P! nk
“Think of You” Chris Young feat. Cassadee Pope