By Brian Ives
Last year, a number of cross-generational country superstars joined together for the “Forever Country” video, a Joseph Kahn directed high-tech mashup that saw Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Keith Urban, Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Reba McIntyre, Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts and Brett Eldredge, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and many others perform a medley of the country standards “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “On the Road Again” and “I Will Always Love You.”
Last night at the Academy of Country Music Awards, “Forever Country” won Video of the Year, and it felt more than a bit symbolic. Over the past decade or so, country music has enthusiastically embraced technology, trends, and the sounds of other music genres, but at the core of it, Nashville is a city about songs. These days, those songs can be heard in cavernous football stadiums accompanied by a visual production fit for a sci-fi movie, but you can still hear them at a guitar pull at the Bluebird Cafe in Music City. Both of these extremes and a lot that fits in between were on display at the ACMs last night.
Related: ACM Awards Winners List
Surely a lot of attention will be given to Florida Georgia Line, who performed at the show with the Backstreet Boys, a moment that would have been hard to fathom during BSB’s rise to fame in the mid- to late- ’90s. The boy band joined FGL for their collaboration, “God, Your Mama and Me,” a song that melded the country duo’s pop-influenced sound and BSB’s multi-vocal attack. But then, they went into “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” which not only saw FGL’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley throwing down boy-band dance moves, but the broadcast showed that in the front row, all of the country icons (including Tim, Faith, Carrie, and Keith) were singing along, and seemingly knowing every word. If you pine for the old days of straight-ahead country music, this may not have been a great moment for you, but despite country’s ever-present sense of traditionalism, the genre doesn’t take kindly to the “Get off my lawn!” attitude in 2017.
That said, it was still a night with great moments for purists. Miranda Lambert, who won Best Female Vocalist for the eighth time, along with Album of the Year for The Weight of These Wings, performed “Tin Man,” accompanied only by her acoustic guitar. Not that she’s always averse to big production—who could forget her roof-raising “Little Red Wagon” at the GRAMMY Awards in 2015—but last night, she provided one of the night’s most arresting moments, singing a song she co-wrote, using only her voice and six strings.
Little Big Town, who won Vocal Group of the Year, had a bit more production for their performance of “Happy People,” from their excellent new album The Breaker. It’s not (yet) the smash that “Better Man” is, but the song highlights the group’s harmonies and has a message that is rather poignant today: “Happy people don’t cheat/Happy people don’t lie/They don’t judge or hold a grudge, don’t criticize/Happy people don’t hate/Happy people don’t steal/’Cause all the hurt sure ain’t worth all the guilt they feel.” It’s worth noting that the ACMs saw no political commentary from the stage, but this is a message that both sides of the aisle can probably get on board with.
Lady Antebellum pulled a somewhat unexpected cross-genre feat, by inviting the UNLV Marching Band on stage with them for “You Look Good.” There was a lot to like about that – it was a huge production that was all about musicianship and flash. Great vocals, amazing musicianship and a fun to watch.
One of the most symbolic guests of the night was Joe Walsh—the eccentric guitarist/singer/songwriter of the Eagles (as well the James Gang; he’s also a solo artist as well). He b0th opened and closed the show: at the start, he joined forces with co-hosts Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley for a rousing version of “Johnny B. Goode” in tribute to the late Chuck Berry (Bryan, on piano, did his best Johnnie Johnson); it was a nice reference to the influence rock and roll has had on country, and also a recognition that Berry’s cross-pollination of country, blues, and R&B is literally what created rock and roll.
Walsh also ended the show, presenting the night’s final and most prestigious award—Entertainer of the Year—to Jason Aldean. Aldean, one of country’s most bankable stadium headliners, wearing a Billy Joel t-shirt, said, “Man, one of the Eagles just gave me an award, that’s probably the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me.” Earlier in the evening, Aldean—who certainly loves stadium rock spectacle—performed a restrained “Any Ol’ Barstool,” a song that could have come from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s or ’00s. You could almost picture Don Henley or Glenn Frey singing it, in a small club in the early days, or on a baseball field decades later. And therein lies country’s power: like the Eagles, the best country artists can put on the biggest, or the most intimate, performances, they can look to the future and/or honor the past, or just be timeless. All of which was on full display at last night’s ceremony.