“Oh my God, you all got me! I am amazingly surprised,” Bryan told co-hosts Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton. He was in Los Angeles, where he just finished taping an episode of “American Idol.” (While the virus precluded him from recording a previously-scheduled performance for the ACMs, he recovered in time to return to his gig as a judge on “Idol.”) He thanked his record label and his family and promised fans that live shows will be back soon. “We’ve missed touring, and we’ve missed being on the road with everybody that makes me an entertainer.”
The awards were otherwise scattered: Maren Morris picked up two prizes, for female artist of the year as well as song of the year for her smash “The Bones,” while Carly Pearce’s No. 1 duet with Lee Brice, “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” earned single and music event of the year. Old Dominion and Dan + Shay won group and duo of the year, respectively. Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over” landed album of the year, Kane Brown earned his first ACM award for his “Worldwide Beautiful” video, and 2020’s co-reigning entertainer of the year, Thomas Rhett, was awarded male artist of the year.
Here were the best and worst moments from the three-hour show, which — because of pandemic protocols — was filmed mostly without an audience, had multiple prerecorded performances, and took place across various venues in Nashville. A complete list of winners and nominees is below.
Maren Morris’s wins
Morris has plenty of experience accepting prizes at Nashville trophy shows over the last several years, and her speeches are generally a highlight. When she won female artist, she spent most of her time addressing her fellow nominees (Pearce, Ashley McBryde, Miranda Lambert and Kelsea Ballerini), noting they had all been laughing together during the commercial breaks. “Even in a year where no one’s gotten to play shows, I’ve heard some of the best music out of all of you this past year. So thank you so much for inspiring me,” she said.
She also became emotional when she talked about winning song of the year for “The Bones,” which she wrote for her husband, Ryan Hurd. But given that it’s about staying strong through a hard time, it recently took on a new meaning for many listeners. “I feel like this song has revealed so many new things to me that I didn’t know were possible the day I wrote it,” Morris said, on the verge of tears. “This has just been a hell of a year. And hopefully country music and maybe even this song brought you and your family and friends some peace.”
Morris capped off the night with a steamy performance (well, steamy for a country award show) with Hurd, crooning their new duet, “Chasing After You.”
Brad Paisley’s surprise for Jimmie Allen
Right before Allen (winner of new male artist of the year) launched into his Brad Paisley duet “Freedom Was a Highway,” Paisley appeared onscreen in a car looking mischievous. He explained that Allen thought he was out of town and couldn’t make the performance. “I’m going to surprise him,” Paisley announced.
Sure enough, as Allen was in the middle of the track on the Bluebird Cafe stage, Paisley appeared from nowhere with a guitar and joined in. Allen looked genuinely shocked, but pulled it together pretty quickly considering.
Chris Stapleton’s devastating song, accompanied by Miranda Lambert
Don’t even think about listening to Stapleton’s “Maggie’s Song” unless you want to wind up in tears. Stapleton has said he had trouble recording this heartbreaking ode to his beloved late dog because he kept crying. We cannot blame him.
Miranda Lambert joined Stapleton for backup vocals on the ballad, her third appearance of the night. She opened the show with a fringe-tastic performance of “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” with Elle King, and “In His Arms” with her collaborators Jack Ingram and Jon Randall. People magazine reported that Lambert replaced Stapleton’s regular backup vocalist, his wife, Morgane, because she had a “prior doula commitment.” This was not further explained.
Ashley McBryde’s performance
When is country radio going to actually play Ashley McBryde? Unclear, even though she’s uniformly championed by the industry. Her fiery rendition of the vengeful “Martha Divine” (one of several outdoor ACM performances) only served as even more proof that she should be one of the format’s stars.
Mickey Guyton’s triumphant night
During their monologue, Urban noted that this night was a pretty big deal for Guyton. It’s true — after years of being sidelined by the industry, in the past 14 months, she has had two game-changing songs, her first Grammy nomination, and a major hosting gig. (Plus she gave birth to her first child this year.) Guyton was quite comfortable onstage bantering with Urban, and then gave one of the show’s most powerful performances with her new ballad, “Hold On.”
“I wrote this next song as a prayer,” she said. “When faced with pain and uncertainty, I hope it inspires you to hold on.”
Dierks Bentley’s dose of bluegrass with War and Treaty
The Station Inn, a beloved venue in Nashville, is also known as “ground zero for bluegrass music,” as Dierks Bentley put it. Bentley, along with Americana/folk duo War and Treaty, delivered a rollicking version of U2′s “Pride (In The Name of Love).” In 2010, Bentley also included the tune on his bluegrass album, and it’s clear he’s still a fan.
Blake Shelton returned with ‘Austin’
“Austin,” one of Shelton’s first defining hits, turns 20 this year, and “The Voice” star returned to perform in honor of the anniversary. Is it one of the best story songs in country music? We’ll let you decide. (The answer is yes.)
A (brief) acknowledgement of the state of the world
It’s no secret that country music likes to avoid discussing current events. The Country Music Association Awards were the perfect example of this last fall, when it held the show in a room with 100 people, most of whom were not wearing masks, and barely brought up the fact that there was a global pandemic. The optics alone caused backlash.
But the ACMs ran through its safety protocols upfront, as Urban and Guyton pointed out that the only audience was at the Grand Ole Opry, and it was a select number of health-care workers who were vaccinated, masked and socially distanced. All the stars wore masks as well, only removing them to perform or give acceptance speeches.
In addition, producers alluded to the fact that country music is in the middle of a significant racial reckoning. While the genre has a long way to go, it was one of the most diverse country award show lineups in a long time. (Prior to the telecast, producers pointed out that four Black artists were nominated, a record.) “Just a reminder, as you’ve seen on this stage presented tonight, country music is a huge, big family where everyone is welcome,” Urban said.
Dan + Shay’s technical difficulties
Pulling off an award show during a pandemic is no easy feat — unfortunately, there was one big technical malfunction. As Dan + Shay performed “Glad You Exist” from the Bluebird Cafe, the audio and video were clearly several seconds apart. While it was easily explained (which the duo did on Twitter), plenty of social media users jumped in to accuse them of lipsyncing. So not great! But they won duo of the year shortly after, which was a solid distraction.
Kenny Chesney’s performance suddenly became the In Memoriam segment
On one hand, it makes sense that Chesney’s new ballad, “Knowing You,” could serve as the show’s In Memoriam. But it was odd to mash the two together — out of nowhere, during his performance, names and photos of country music’s recently deceased started scrolling across the screen. The list was so long and tragic this year (Charley Pride, Mac Davis, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, KT Oslin, Hal Ketchum and many more) that it could have served as its own segment. The abrupt transition was even more jarring than seeing Chesney, whose wardrobe staple is a cutoff shirt and jeans, wearing a sensible polo and dress pants.
The lack of women in the entertainer of the year category
In an era when there was no touring, “entertainer of the year” can mean anything. Plenty of country music’s female stars put out new songs and had success this past year, yet again, they still didn’t have enough support from voters for the show’s biggest category.
FEMALE ARTIST OF THE YEAR
NEW FEMALE ARTIST OF THE YEAR
NEW MALE ARTIST OF THE YEAR
“Born Here Live Here Die Here” Luke Bryan
“Mixtape Vol. 1” Kane Brown
“Never Will” Ashley McBryde
“Skeletons” Brothers Osborne
“Starting Over” Chris Stapleton — winner
“Bluebird” Miranda Lambert
“The Bones” Maren Morris
“I Hope” Gabby Barrett
“I Hope You’re Happy Now” Carly Pearce and Lee Brice — winner
“More Hearts Than Mine” Ingrid Andress
“Bluebird” Miranda Lambert (written by Lambert, Luke Dick, Natalie Hemby)
“The Bones” Maren Morris (written by Morris, Jimmy Robbins, Laura Veltz) — winner
“One Night Standards” Ashley McBryde (written by McBryde, Nicolette Hayford, Shane McAnally)
“Some People Do” Old Dominion (written by Matt Ramsey, Jesse Frasure, Thomas Rhett and Shane McAnally)
“Starting Over” Chris Stapleton (written by Stapleton and Mike Henderson)
“Bluebird” Miranda Lambert
“Better Than We Found It” Maren Morris
“Gone” Dierks Bentley
“Hallelujah” Carrie Underwood and John Legend
“Worldwide Beautiful” Kane Brown — winner
“Be A Light” Thomas Rhett feat. Reba McEntire, Hillary Scott, Chris Tomlin, Keith Urban
“Does To Me” Luke Combs feat. Eric Church
“I Hope You’re Happy Now” Carly Pearce and Lee Brice — winner
“Nobody But You” Blake Shelton feat. Gwen Stefani
“One Beer” Hardy feat. Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson
“One Too Many” Keith Urban and Pink