In just under four weeks, the Grammys will descend on Las Vegas after an Omicron-related delay. Meanwhile, the Academy of Country Music just made its grand return to Sin City for the first time since 2019 at Allegiant Stadium. The show resembled the Grammys in one big way: its commitment to packing in as much live music as possible despite it being an awards show. It helped that this year’s event streamed exclusively on Prime Video, becoming the first major awards show to go streaming only — and bypassing commercial breaks in the process. That let the ACMs cram over two dozen musicians and a handful of trophies into a tight two-hour set that aimed to feel like a mini music festival. Here are the highs, lows, and whoas of the night.
HIGH: Kicking off in Vegas with a show!
Just giving Dolly Parton a monologue could’ve been enough for an opener. But this is the ACMs’ big return to Vegas, and that merited a show. So we got a few Dolly jokes (“You know I how I hate anything fake” was perfect) before lively performances from co-hosts Jimmie Allen and Gabby Barrett (of what else but “Viva Las Vegas” and “Let’s Go to Vegas”). It was the right start for Prime’s ACMs, which aimed to present itself as one big concert.
LOW: Eric Church’s overstuffed, underwhelming medley.
Eric Church has the hits to make a great career-spanning medley — and he played dozens of them during his ACMs performance. That left him singing just two or four bars of some of his biggest songs for a rote performance without much excitement. Remember the CD commercials in which they’d play five-second clips of like ten tracks? It was less like a live performance and more like one of those for an Eric Church greatest hits.
LOW: Is that Walker Hayes … at the concession stand?
For the most part, the ACMs used its venue — the 70,000-seat Allegiant Stadium — well with multiple stages set up across the field and the concourses. The one misstep came early in the show when Walker Hayes started his performance at a concession stand before awkwardly making his way down to the field. (Shout-out to the woman walking behind him for much of that, just trying to find her way back to her seat after grabbing a beer.) At least it felt fitting for a guy whose biggest hit name-checks Applebee’s.
LOW: The Prime Video tie-ins.
Yes, we knew it was coming. But could it have been any more blatant? Prime Video not only booked two of its own actors to present the night’s first awards; it also kept the self-promo going throughout the evening with trailers of upcoming Prime shows you’d surely never heard of before. Guess it’s still better than commercial breaks.
HIGH: Chris Stapleton burns the house down.
Along with usually hosting the ACMs, Las Vegas has a different, uncomfortable spot in country-music history as the site of the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting, the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Chris Stapleton channeled his rage about the tragedy into “Watch You Burn,” off his 2020 album, Starting Over. He dusted that one off for the ACMs’ Vegas return with the sort of stirring performance he does best, held down by his howling and intricate guitar picking. That would’ve been more than enough to make this a standout, never mind the fact that Stapleton was singing about gun violence, without mincing words, on a major country awards shows. Throw in a surprise choir at the end, and you’ve got the performance of the night.
LOW: Morgan Wallen is back.
If the tour dates and Grand Ole Opry appearance weren’t convincing enough that Morgan Wallen was back in country’s good graces after saying the N-word on video last year, how about him winning one of the night’s top awards? Wallen took home Album of the Year for Dangerous: The Double Album, marking his first major award since the controversy (from the ACMs no less, which removed him from contention in 2021). Going by the numbers, Dangerous was the country album of the year thanks to its massive chart success. But numbers can’t prove Wallen has learned from his mistake — one he didn’t even mention in his acceptance speech, merely referencing the people who showed him “grace.”
WHOA: Lainey Wilson makes her mark.
Country-as-hell breakout Lainey Wilson surprised early in the night, eking out a win in Song of the Year for her radio hit “Things a Man Oughta Know” over more known quantities including Walker Hayes, Morgan Wallen, and Jordan Davis. “It’s not just something that a man oughta know,” she said during a charming acceptance speech. “It’s something that we all need to know!” Later in the night, Wilson returned with a highlight performance of the winning song, in which she showed off her powerful vocal chops and had fun on the big stage. She deserved it.
WHOA: 35 straight minutes of music?
That’s right — this year’s show leaned into the commercial-free benefits of streaming by touting a 35-minute mini-concert of back-to-back performances. Sounds like a dream compared with the clunky awards shows you’re used to? Well, the gambit needs a bit of fine-tuning. The segment could’ve benefited from a bit more host presence to break things up; without that, it felt jarring to go from artist to artist, barnstormer to ballad, in mere minutes.
HIGH: Maren Morris, Thomas Rhett, Brothers Osborne, and Breland stand out.
That’s the thing about a night jam-packed with music: The songs can blur together, and the ones that drag draaag. (Looking at y’all, Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood performing the same song we’ve heard on TV five other times.) But let’s talk some standouts! Maren Morris gave a tight run-through of her stellar new single, “Circles Around This Town,” which doubled as a great ad for the tour she announced earlier in the day. Thomas Rhett hopped on the piano for a soaring, string-accompanied take on his song “Slow Down Summer.” Brothers Osborne made good on their Duo of the Year win with a hip-shaking performance of “Skeletons” complete with cool skeleton-inspired body suits. And rising star Breland made a joyful noise with “Praise the Lord,” backed by the night’s second choir and some help from Rhett.
HIGH: And we will always love Kelly Clarkson’s covers.
It was the moment we’d been waiting for — and the ACMs made us wait. After over 100 minutes of show, we finally got that promised Kelly Clarkson tribute to Parton, and if you had any doubt? She delivered. Clarkson took on the mother of all covers, “I Will Always Love You,” written by Parton before it was popularized by Whitney Houston. She sang a simple, true rendition of the song, showing off her signature belt without ever overdoing it. “I was backstage trying not to cry my false eyelashes off and slinging snot every direction and tears,” a bashful Parton said after. Her and the rest of us.
WHOA: Miranda Lambert finally gets the big trophy.
The most-awarded artist in ACMs history had never won the show’s top honor, Entertainer of the Year. That changed Monday night when Miranda Lambert nabbed the trophy, also becoming the first woman to win solo in a decade since Taylor Swift. (Underwood tied with Rhett in 2020.) Hey, we’ve been telling you she deserved it for years.