I remember country music most vividly as the twangy acoustic stream trickling from the speakers of my Papaw’s truck. A good ol’ boy from Jellico, Tennessee, Papaw let the warmth of fiddles and guitars ramble quietly in the truck cab. Of course, he was doing donuts in the street with his grandchildren in the back, but the music was soft and simple. Needless to say, the days of my Papaw’s country music are long gone.
This truth was evident at last Sunday’s 54th Annual Association of Country Music Awards, hosted by the “Queen of Country,” Reba McEntire. McEntire was not terribly funny — as Kacey Musgraves’s perpetually cringing face confirmed — but her quip about women being frozen out of the Entertainer of the Year category is worthy of a smirk. The show got moving quickly. The night’s biggest winners were duo Dan + Shay who won Song of the Year for “Tequila,” as well as Single of the Year and Duo of the Year. Other notable wins for the night included the brilliant Ashley McBryde winning New Female Artist of the Year, Musgraves’s well-deserved win of both Female Artist of the Year and Album of the Year for “Golden Hour,” and Dierks Bentley’s win of Music Event of the Year for “Burning Man.”
As an awards ceremony that is sparse of categories, the show was dominated by some incredible performances. The extraordinary violinist, Amanda Shires, dazzled on the fiddle during Luke Comb’s performance of “Beautiful Crazy.” Likewise, the phenomenal alt-country darling, Brandi Carlile, stole the show during Bentley’s performance of “Travellin’ Light.” Other notable performances included Miranda Lambert’s powerhouse medley, “This Is Us” star Chrissy Metz’s performance of “I’m Standing With You” from her new film “Breakthrough,” as well as a heartwarming display in “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” by McBryde.
For all the striking performances and well-deserved winners, there were a number of duds. The ceremony opened with “Can’t Hide Red,” performed by Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean, which could have simply flown under the radar, only if it was not also a shameless plug for Old Camp Whiskey, “the official whiskey of country music.” One can only hope that Old Camp doesn’t leave as bitter of a taste as the performance did.
The rapid fluctuation in tone throughout the night also contributed to the lackluster feeling. Like Luke Bryant’s “Knocking Boots” immediately following Miranda Lambert’s empowering performance of a medley of her greatest hits. Somehow Keith Urban won Entertainer of the Year, beating out compelling artists like Chris Stapleton. Equally confusing, Jason Aldean won the Dick Clark Artist of the Decade award. While he certainly has talent, few would consider Aldean more impressive than the innumerable female country artists who were ignored by the Academy.
While the ACM awards were entertaining to a point, the entire ceremony was tainted by the noticeable lack of female representation. Musgraves was not given a chance to perform and Shires was not announced when she played during Comb’s “Beautiful Crazy.” The entire show felt incredibly on edge, attempting to balance the discomfort with the increasing inability to ignore it. The fact that McEntire was willing to overtly call attention to it only proves how pressing the issue is. In fact, women were present on stage for awards only twice outside of female-oriented categories.
The ACM awards did have some outstanding performances. The bad ones certainly did not blemish the stunning talent that did manage to get time on stage. What became increasingly apparent is the Academy of Country Music’s very uncertain footing as it — and country music as a genre — struggle between tradition and the efforts of country’s more dynamic artists to break free of the Nashville sound. Evidently, that sound is not country music. Luckily, the outspoken frustration of female artists and increasing influence of roots-based artists at the ceremony demonstrated that there is clearly some light over yonder.