Carrie Underwood couldn’t have summed things up better at the end of Wednesday’s Academy of Country Music Awards.
“What is happening right now?” Rhett said with a smile as he took his prize on one end of the Grand Ole Opry House stage.
“I am more than happy to share this with Thomas Rhett,” Underwood said from the opposite end. “Thank you, fans, for coming out to see us, spending your hard-earned money, band, crew, everybody that makes the shows happen. You guys, hold on. It will happen again. Just hold on.”
ACM Awards 2020:Complete list of winners
It was a fitting end for a show that was unprecedented on several fronts. After postponing its April date in Las Vegas due to the coronavirus pandemic, the California-rooted show came to Nashville for the first time ever and was produced with social distancing measures in place.
Artists took the stage at three separate Nashville venues: the Opry House, the Ryman Auditorium and the Bluebird Cafe. They did so with no live audience and no direct interaction with their peers.
“This has been an unpredictable and unsettling year for everyone,” said first-time host Keith Urban, noting the wildfires on the West Coast and Hurricane Sally in the Southeast.
“We’re still in the midst of trying to fight two pandemics: COVID-19 and social injustice. Far too many lives have been lost to both. But the examples set by our essential workers and our first responders, along with the voices crying out for equality in all walks of life, have echoed all around the world, and right here in our country community. They inspire us to come together and work together to address these challenges.”
Live … sort of
And perhaps also in the interest of practicality, very little of the show’s live music was actually live. In addition to all the Ryman Auditorium segments being pre-recorded, only one performer — Mickey Guyton — sang live from the Grand Ole Opry House.
But outside of the music, the show was kept as live as possible, and as spontaneous as the times permitted. All awards presentations were broadcast live, though the winner of each award was clearly waiting just off camera to walk on and accept.
Miranda Lambert’s brilliant “Bluebird,” appropriately enough, was also live from the Bluebird Cafe. It stood in stark contrast to a performance from Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, who used the “magic of television” — a green screen — to be transported to a virtual version of the iconic club. Shelton returned to that space to accept the award for Single of the Year, for “God’s Country.”
In another rare situation for this unprecedented show, the night’s most anticipated performer, by far, was someone who wasn’t up for any awards. Taylor Swift gave her first performance on a country awards show in seven years, singing “betty” from the Grand Ole Opry House stage.
Mickey Guyton’s moment
Despite the desperate times Urban mentioned in his opening remarks, there were few social statements made on Wednesday. A shining exception came from Guyton, one of a small number of Black artists in mainstream country music.
A powerful performance: Mickey Guyton sings ‘What Are You Gonna Tell Her?’
She turned in a stirring — and live — rendition of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and sang of a woman who thinks “If you work hard, that’s enough/ Skin’s just skin and it doesn’t matter. … But what are you gonna tell her when she’s wrong?”
Nine years after she signed a major-label recording contract, Guyton appeared to be having a breakthrough moment.
“I’ve been at this for so long, and it really goes to show that you should stay the course,” she told The Tennessean earlier in the week. “I hate to be preachy, but I’m gonna preach. When God has a plan for you, he really has a plan for you, and even if it takes a long time, it doesn’t mean it’s not gonna happen.”
To introduce his “Stick That in Your Country Song,” Eric Church played a recorded excerpt of Johnny Cash’s patriotic 1974 “Ragged Old Flag,” and kept an image of the stars and stripes waving in the background of his performance. As she accepted her award for Female Artist of the Year, Maren Morris urged viewers to vote.
Big night for Luke Combs, Old Dominion
Though he didn’t win for Entertainer of the Year, Luke Combs — country’s newest arena-filling star — continued his sharp ascent on Wednesday. The 30-year-old was named Male Artist of the Year, and his record-breaking “What You See Is What You Get” earned the award for Album of the Year.
“This is a lot to process right now,” Combs said from the Bluebird. “I just can’t believe this. … I can’t wait to keep working and keep making you proud.”
It was also a big night for Old Dominion, mainstream country’s only prominent traditional band. The quintet picked up awards for Group of the Year and Song of the Year with “One Man Band.”
Through the multiple venues and pre-recorded “magic of television,” producers believed Wednesday’s show had the most performances ever in ACMs history, with 40 songs “represented” by more than two dozen performers. Other highlights included tributes to the Grand Ole Opry and country music figures lost over the past year (by Underwood and Trisha Yearwood, respectively), Female New Artist winner Tenille Townes holding her own on a solo acoustic “Somebody’s Daughter,” Combs’ stripped-down “Better Together” and newcomer Gabby Barrett’s explosive “I Hope.”
The ACMs are the first of three country music awards shows to be held weeks apart this fall. The CMT Music Awards (which were postponed from their usual spot in June) will now air Oct. 21, and the CMA Awards will follow on their original date of Nov. 11.