The 2020 Academy of Country Music Awards, presented in September after a COVID-related delay, was one of the year’s best pandemic awards shows, bringing performances live from Nashville’s Grande Ole Opry House, Ryman Auditorium, and Bluebird Café at a time when we were all starved for live music. This year’s show aired Sunday night, just seven months later, and followed much of the same script, bringing a lot of the same performers from the same venues, and scratching that same itch once again. While the ACM barred Morgan Wallen from the awards after video emerged of him saying the N-word, and later boasted about nominating four separate Black musicians, the actual show that happened largely avoided politics in favor of a message about the resilience of music. Here are the highs, lows, and whoas of the 2021 ACM Awards.
HIGH: Early wins for Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown.
The ACM didn’t just nominate four Black musicians and brag about breaking a record, the awards made good on the change by giving trophies to both Jimmie Allen, for New Male Artist of the Year, and Kane Brown, for Video of the Year for “Worldwide Beautiful.” Allen became the first Black musician to ever win an ACM new artist award, while Brown became the first Black soloist to win the ACM for Video of the Year.
HIGH: Miranda Lambert and Elle King open the show with a full-on show.
The cars! The fringe! The chemistry! “Drunk (And I Don’t Want to Go Home)” is far from Lambert or King’s best, but after over a year of no live music, that performance was what we needed.
HIGH: The ACM knows how to put on a COVID awards show.
The ACM Awards usually happen in Las Vegas, ceding Nashville to the CMAs. But last year’s awards took place in three empty Nashville venues, presumably to minimize travel during the pandemic for all the musicians that live in the country capital. This year’s show kept the same setup, with performances live from the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, Bluebird Café, Station Inn, and underneath some bridge. And it worked! The ACMs felt like one of the best live-music moments in pandemic awards shows yet — thanks in part to the iconic venues, outfitted with full sets for the performances like a proper award show. And the ACMs also learned from the mess that was last November’s CMA Awards, ensuring all audience members — a mix of nominees and health-care workers — were masked and distanced in the venues.
WHOA: Miranda Lambert duets with Chris Stapleton.
Lambert was already set for two performances at the ACMs, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home?” with Elle King and “In His Arms” with her Marfa Tapes collaborators Jack Ingram and Jon Randall. But in the wake of a “prior doula commitment” for Chris Stapleton’s wife, Morgane, Lambert was an unexpected duet partner for the big-voiced singer-songwriter and harmonized on “Maggie’s Song,” Stapleton’s ode to his late dog.
HIGH: The amount of love between Maren Morris and her singer-songwriter husband Ryan Hurd.
Just watch their performance of “Chasing After You.”
LOW: Why is the fake Lady A performing?
Wouldn’t it have rocked if the ACM booked the real Lady A to replace Luke Bryan (who tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the show) instead?
HIGH: Maren Morris shouts out her co-writers as she wins Song of the Year.
Watching Morris win Song of the Year for “The Bones,” a wildly perfect country hit, felt like watching your favorite sports team score. Morris noted that her co-writers, Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz, hadn’t been able to accept the award with her due to COVID precautions, but made sure to give them all the shine during her speech.
WHOA: Dierks Bentley and the War and Treaty blow the roof off the Station Inn.
What if we told you the best performance of the whole show was a bluegrass cover of a U2 song by a country superstar and an Americana-soul duo? Dierks Bentley and the War and Treaty’s tribute to the Station Inn — a legendary bluegrass venue whose owner, J.T. Gray, died in March, days after presenting an award for the Grammys — was absolutely stunning. Bentley had actually covered “Pride (In the Name of Love)” before, on his 2010 bluegrass album Up on the Ridge, but tonight, War and Treaty singers Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount stole the show with some passionate, absolutely huge vocals.
HIGH: Eric Church performing future live-show burner “Bunch of Nothing.”
A year into a pandemic, Eric Church still has his live chops. He scorched the stage with “Bunch of Nothing,” a new cut from his just-released album, Heart, that’s sure to become a staple of his post-pandemic sets. Featuring yet another powerful backing performance by Joanna Cotten, Church’s extraordinary backup singer.
WHOA: Brad Paisley surprises Jimmie Allen, and okay, it’s sweet.
As New Male Artist of the Year winner, Jimmie Allen got a performance slot on the show, where he sang his Brad Paisley duet “Freedom Was a Highway” at the Bluebird Café. And while Allen thought Paisley wouldn’t be around for the event, the singer actually surprised Allen by joining him onstage for his part of the song. Sure, it seemed pretty contrived, but that didn’t make the performance any less fun.
WHOA: Carly Pearce and Lee Brice winning Single of the Year for “I Hope You’re Happy Now.”
If Carly Pearce’s absolute shock at winning this award didn’t tell you, this one was an upset! But a deserved one, and a fitting tribute to the late country and pop mastermind producer busbee, who died from brain cancer in fall 2019.
HIGH: Ashley McBryde, as always, rocks.
Ashley McBryde really deserved at least one piece of hardware for her album Never Will, a potent blend of outlaw sensibility and pop sheen. While she didn’t pick up any tonight, she did show why she deserved the recognition with a fiery performance of “Martha Divine” — right in the middle of the Cumberland River, no less.
LOW: Well, Blake Shelton tried.
The man just can’t hit the notes he could 20 years ago, as he proved with a throwback performance of 2001 hit “Austin.” And he just can’t write the songs he could 20 years ago, as he proved following “Austin” with “Minimum Wage,” a 2021 song that caught heat for, well, being a song with that title by a multimillionaire country star.
LOW: The number of awards given out on the show.
As much as we appreciated the focus on live music, we wish the show would’ve given out a few more awards on air. Instead, the show fell into the same trap as its peers, presenting a number of its trophies off-air. Yes, we get that they give out the new artist awards and Musical Event of the Year ahead of time so the winners can perform, but why not show the speeches? Why present Video of the Year ahead of time for such a big win? In a genre that respects songwriting so much, why not throw Songwriter of the Year on the broadcast too?
HIGH: Mickey Guyton is an absolute star.
Guyton shined the entire night, from her fabulous outfit changes as host to her performance of “Hold On,” one of the standouts of the night. After last year’s stunning, sparse ACMs performance of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” Guyton went big at this year’s show, with smoke, wind, and a whole choir for her gospel-tinged ballad. If that performance left you wondering why this woman still doesn’t have a single ACM trophy, you’re not the only one.
WHOA: What we’ll be saying watching Keith Urban finally tour The Speed of Now Part 1.
Urban played the Grand Ole Opry like it was a packed arena, only making us long for the days of packed arenas even more.
HIGH: Little Big Town take “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” to the streets of Nashville.
If any country song from the past year needs a marching band added to it, it’s “Wine, Beer, Whiskey,” the rollicking drinking anthem from Little Big Town. The group may have been down a member, with Philip Sweet in quarantine after testing positive for COVID, but their drummers and horn players more than made up for it.
LOW: Once again, Entertainer of the Year gets it wrong.
Last year’s ACM Awards presented the first ever tie for Entertainer of the Year, when Thomas Rhett and Carrie Underwood split the award. It felt like a slight toward Underwood, who more than deserved to win on her own, given that she hasn’t stopped running country music in the decade since she last won the top honor. This year, after women like Underwood, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde, and Mickey Guyton dominated country music, zero were nominated for Entertainer of the Year. After a night that felt like country music was inching toward some important change, Luke Bryan’s win in the top category felt anticlimactic. “Country music is a huge big family where everyone is welcome,” Urban reminded us in his final remarks. You could almost believe that during parts of the show, but not in the grand finale.