The Academy of Country Music Awards usually kicks off with a boisterous opening number — this year, on Sunday night, the show started on a much quieter note. Five country stars (Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Maren Morris and Thomas Rhett) paid tribute to the victims of the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting in October.
Unlike many award shows these days, the country stars avoided talk of politics — though some in attendance wore pins with the numbers “851,” “58” and “1.” According to Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild, they represented “the 851 injured, the 58 lost and the 1 life we can save in the future if we’re willing to start a conversation about things that need to be done for our children, our families and our fans.”
Aldean, who was performing at the festival when the gunman started shooting, spoke first. “Tonight, we wanted to open the show with something that sums up what it’s like for our country music family to be back in Las Vegas for the first time since Oct. 1,” he said. “We thought about starting with a song, but it’s a lot bigger than a single song. It’s everything you’ll hear tonight. The songs that bring us to our feet, make you want to bring someone close, or just live in the moment.”
“Music does so much more than provide an escape from the pain,” Morris said. “It inspires us, it soothes us and it makes us stronger.”
Afterward, the show returned to its mission of being country music’s “party of the year,” with two dozen performances. Lambert continued her unstoppable award show reign and broke the record for the most ACM wins in history, picking up two more for a total of 31. She won female vocalist of the year for the ninth consecutive time, along with song of the year for “Tin Man,” an aching acoustic ballad she co-wrote with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram.
“Thank you guys so much for sharing my broken heart with me,” Lambert said as she accepted the trophy. “Tin Man” is from her critically acclaimed album “The Weight of These Wings,” which she released in 2016 after her divorce from fellow country star Blake Shelton. (Shelton was in the audience with girlfriend Gwen Stefani, and the camera avoided any awkward reaction shots from the exes.)
A full list of winners and nominees is below — here are some of the best and worst moments of the ACMs.
* Carrie Underwood’s much-hyped performance.
How many tuned in to the show just to see Carrie Underwood’s face? The country superstar has stayed out of sight since November, when she took a nasty fall and suffered a broken wrist and facial injuries. Underwood revealed in January that the “gruesome” accident could leave her looking “a bit different” — and she has been leaving a trail of cryptic Instagram photos ever since, piquing people’s curiosity.
But viewers couldn’t spot any differences during the telecast when Underwood made her heavily promoted debut to perform her new single, “Cry Pretty.” While the mystery of Underwood’s face did not live up to the hype, she did show off her typically flawless vocal skills, and got emotional as the crowd gave her a huge standing ovation at the end. A moment later, she returned to the stage when she won vocal event of the year with Keith Urban for their duet “The Fighter.”
“I’m still kind of, like, shaky right now,” Underwood said, tears in her eyes.
* The throwbacks to ’90s country.
The ACMs decided to celebrate the year 1993. Sure, why not? Nothing gets a crowd on its feet faster than jamming to ’90s country. Alan Jackson performed “Chattahoochee” with Jon Pardi; Toby Keith sang “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” with Shelton, and Reba McEntire delivered “Does He Love You” with her daughter-in-law, pop star Kelly Clarkson. All the duets were wildly entertaining, and the shots of the famous faces in the crowd singing along were the best part. McEntire, also the host of the show, wore her low-cut, strategically sparkly red dress that caused quite the scandal in 1993.
* Kane Brown and Lauren Alaina and “What Ifs.”
Brown, 24, got a somewhat controversial start in Nashville because he became famous singing cover songs on Facebook, and the town doesn’t always trust the whims of social media. Alaina, 23, was the runner-up on “American Idol” in 2011, and it took her five failed singles before she got her first hit last year. The singers — who coincidentally went to the same middle school in Georgia — also both have songs about their painful pasts and difficult family situations. So it was gratifying to see the two celebrate success together (the duet, “What Ifs,” went No. 1) on an award show stage.
* Blake Shelton’s low-key performance.
Shelton took a break from “The Voice” to prove he hasn’t gone totally Hollywood with “I Lived It,” a quiet song about a very country upbringing: “Daddy drove the wheels off a flatbed Ford, flies found a hole in the old screen door. … Mama poured grease in a Crisco can, put a hundred thousand miles on a Sears box fan.” After his past songs about being a “red-red-red-red-red-red-red-red-redneck,” it’s nice to see Shelton bring it down a notch.
* More meaningful songs from Nashville’s most popular male artists.
The top-selling male artists in Nashville — Shelton, Aldean, Bryan, Rhett — all have slowed down singles that go deeper than typical party songs. They led to more solid musical moments than unusual on Sunday’s show, from Aldean’s “You Make It Easy” to Bryan’s “Most People Are Good” to Rhett’s “Marry Me.”
* Maren Morris’s “Rich.”
Sometimes you really need to match your performance to the aesthetics — and this couldn’t be more Vegas if Morris tried.
* Chris Janson closing the show with “Redneck Life.”
At past ACMs, maybe this would have worked as a high-energy conclusion — but this wasn’t like other years. Right before Janson launched into his buoyant tune, Aldean won entertainer of the year, the most prestigious prize, and got choked up as he talked about the last six months. “It’s been a rough year … to my Route 91 people, you guys are in our hearts, always. Love you guys,” Aldean said tearfully. While the scheduling isn’t Janson’s fault, it wasn’t really the best segue after Aldean’s emotional speech.
* The odd absence of Brothers Osborne.
The sibling duo tied with Lambert and Chris Stapleton for the most trophies, with two each; they won video of the year for “It Ain’t My Fault” and vocal duo of the year. The latter is a major category, yet it wasn’t given as a televised award. The duo are also known for stellar guitar skills and routinely dominate performances at award shows. But they weren’t given a performance slot, even though their sophomore album will be released on Friday. When one fan tweeted they missed seeing the bros on stage during the show, the duo responded, “Would have loved to have been a part of it.” Very mysterious indeed.
* The no-shows.
One way to make sure a show ends on time? Have multiple absences for some of the biggest awards! Stapleton’s wife, Morgane, had just given birth to twin boys, so he had a pretty good excuse — someone will have to ship him the trophies for album of the year (“From A Room, Vol. 1″) and male vocalist. And where was Sam Hunt? Country music’s most elusive star was nowhere to be found, even though his monster hit “Body Like a Back Road” won single of the year.
* The lame monologue jokes.
The ACMs has yet to figure out a winning formula for a funny monologue, no matter the host. While McEntire had some good zingers (such as making fun of Keith Urban for his frosted tips), the monologue was, well … like this:
“As you all know, Carrie is married to Nashville hockey player Mike Fisher. That explains why she body checked me going into makeup!”
“Jason Aldean not only has a new baby, he’s got a new bar in Nashville. Either way, every night he’s going through a lot of bottles!”
However, we will give her credit for this line, when she gave a shout-out to previous ACM hosting duos of Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan, and Bryan with Dierks Bentley: “I guess they finally figured out that it only takes one woman to do the job of two men.”
Winners and nominees:
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR
Jason Aldean — winner
FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Miranda Lambert — winner
MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Chris Stapleton — winner
VOCAL DUO OF THE YEAR
Brothers Osborne — winner
Dan + Shay
Florida Georgia Line
Tim McGraw & Faith Hill
VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR
Little Big Town
Old Dominion — winner
NEW FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Lauren Alaina — winner
NEW MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Brett Young — winner
NEW VOCAL DUO OR GROUP OF THE YEAR
Midland — winner
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
“The Breaker” Little Big Town
“California Sunrise” Jon Pardi
“From A Room Vol. 1” Chris Stapleton — winner
“Happy Endings” Old Dominion
“Life Changes” Thomas Rhett
SINGLE RECORD OF THE YEAR
“Better Man” Little Big Town
“Body Like a Back Road” Sam Hunt — winner
“Broken Halos” Chris Stapleton
“Drinkin’ Problem” Midland
“I’ll Name The Dogs” Blake Shelton
SONG OF THE YEAR
“Body Like a Back Road” Sam Hunt (written by Sam Hunt, Zach Crowell, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne)
“Female” Keith Urban (written by Ross Copperman, Nicolle Galyon, Shane McAnally)
“Tin Man” Miranda Lambert (written by Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, Jon Randall) — winner
“Whiskey and You” Chris Stapleton (written by Chris Stapleton, Lee Thomas Miller)
VIDEO OF THE YEAR
“Black” Dierks Bentley
“It Ain’t My Fault” Brothers Osborne — winner
“Legends” Kelsea Ballerini
“Marry Me” Thomas Rhett
“We Should Be Friends” Miranda Lambert
VOCAL EVENT OF THE YEAR
“Craving You” Thomas Rhett feat. Maren Morris
“Dear Hate” Maren Morris feat. Vince Gill
“The Fighter” Keith Urban feat. Carrie Underwood — winner
“What Ifs” Kane Brown feat. Lauren Alaina
“Funny (How Time Slips Away)” Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson
SONGWRITER OF THE YEAR
Rhett Akins — winner