Luke Bryan won the top prize, entertainer of the year, at Sunday’s Academy of Country Music Awards, accepting the honor via remote from Los Angeles, where he had just made a surprise return to his “American Idol” hosting duties after recovering from COVID-19.
Bryan had publicly announced only six days ago that he was diagnosed with the virus. Speaking to the press after the ACM Awards, Bryan said, “Certainly the key to feeling better with having COVID was I very fortunate to not have a long set of symptoms. It was still quite challenging for a couple days, but thank God for, certainly, health.”
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He conceded it felt odd to win his third entertainer trophy from afar. “I had an opportunity to potentially perform on the show and then I couldn’t because of the COVID diagnosis… So I’m a little removed from being able to be in the room… My phone is literally on fire with people calling.”
Bryan was not the only scheduled performer to be knocked out of a spot by COVID. Little Big Town’s Philip Sweet is apparently still down with the virus, so he gave a shout-out from home to the other three members of the quartet before they marched down Nashville’s Lower Broad with a mini-marching band performing “The Wine, the Beer, the Whisky,” shouting out “We miss you, Philip!” as they finally came to a halt alongside a cardboard standup of Sweet on the street.
Maren Morris won two awards, for female vocalist of the year and song of the year (for “The Bones”). Thomas Rhett, who tied for entertainer of the year last year with Carrie Underwood, picked up male vocalist of the year, something he hadn’t won before at the ACMs.
The awards were well spread out, with Morris the only winner to make a return trip to the podium during the event. The duet partners Carly Pearce and Lee Brice also won two awards for their teaming on “I Hope You’re Happy Now”; their trophy for music event was announced prior to the telecast, but they did get to step up when the song also won single of the year honors.
Chris Stapleton won album of the year for “Starting Over.” Dan + Shay picked up duo of the year, while group of the year went to Old Dominion.
Bryan had been scheduled to perform on the ACMs until earlier in the week, when his appearance was canceled because of the same health reasons that his live judging duties on last Monday’s “American Idol” were scotched. The star didn’t address when he contracted or was declared free of the virus. It’s also not clear how he would have appeared on the ACMs and “Idol” live on rival networks from different cities on the same night, but some of the performances on the show were pre-recorded, and it’s possible Bryan had planned to film a number for the ACMs and then fly back to L.A before his health crisis threw everything in the air.
His wife “Caroline was nursing me back to health. I was certainly amazed to move through that,” he said.
Bryan described himself as “totally surprised and shocked” by getting entertainer this year. “You never take these things for granted, you just don’t,” he said, admitting: “There’s been some years I thought I should have won and didn’t… You can’t get caught up in one year, can’t get caught up in two years.” He described himself as wanting to get to 75 and look back on his body of work with pride without regard to which years he won awards. “I loved the years when I didn’t win because they challenged me and made me work harder… and the years I did win, you could probably go, ‘You took that for granted; that was a shame.’ The bottom line is to have your feet on firm, solid ground through all of this. When you start having success in music, you can have a year when you aren’t happy with who you are as an artist but things can happen (anyway). I think just having a level-headed approach to a scenario where you can do this for many, many years” is key, he said.
During the parts of the show that were telecast live from the Grand Ole Opry House, the five artist nominees and a single guest were brought out, masked, into the front rows of the otherwise unpopulated floor area, then cycled back out before the next award presentation. (A small audience of vaccinated, masked, socially distanced Vanderbilt Health workers cheered from the balcony.)
Accepting her award for song of the year for “The Bones,” Morris lamented that “this is really bittersweet, because I didn’t write this by myself, and each time I’ve been lucky enough” to win for the tune, “my cowriters have not gotten to say anything.” But she was approving of the spacious setup, even if it means her songwriting cohorts didn’t get to share the glory: “Thanks to the ACMs for keeping us safe,” she said.
Morris noted she was writing “The Bones” while “dating my now-husband,” fellow singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd, with whom she shared an intimate duet at another point in the program. “It was just a song to him — and I feel sometimes songs know you better than you know them at the time, and this song has revealed to me things I didn’t know were possible the day I wrote it.” She believes it transcended being a love song to become a pandemic anthem. “This has been a hell of a year,” Morris said. “I hope country music and maybe this song brought you and your friends some peace.”
Another bittersweet moment, and a highlight among the 25 or so performances, came when Dierks Bentley, the husband/wife duo the War and Treaty and the female duo Larkin Poe did an energized string-band version of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” from the Station Inn, in tribute to JT Gray, its owner, who just died. “I first came into this bar when I was about 19,” Bentley said, and found his home among fellow bluegrass lovers. “We recently lost the leader of that bluegrass community. We’ll be thinking of him tonight as we sing this song.” Although Bentley surely could have gotten away with singing lead on the entire cover, he handed over lead vocals for the final stretch — which describes Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and life — to the War and Treaty, part of a noted effort to have more Black faces represented on this year’s show.
Kenny Chesney sang the heartbreak ballad “Knowing You, which was capped by a brief, not-quite-official In Memoriam. But the saddest performance of the evening might actually have been Chris Stapleton at the Bluebird Cafe, singing a song from his award-winning album about the death of his dog, “Maggie’s Song,” joined on harmonies by Miranda Lambert, the country genre’s foremost dog adoption advocate.
Lambert certainly won VIP performance honors for the night by participating in three different numbers. She opened the show with duet partner Elle King, singing “Drunk (And I Don’t Want to Go Home)” at the Opry House; then she was seen joining Stapleton at the Bluebird for their salute to good dogs; and Lambert was also at the Ryman with friends Jack Ingram and Jon Randall to preview a song, “In His Arms,” from their upcoming May trio release. At the outset of the show, cohost Mickey Guyton, “I’m just glad Miranda has a car outside, because we’re gonna see her all around town tonight,” although Lambert’s ability to perform from three different locales in less than an hour and a half likely owed more to a certain amount of pre-records than turbo engines.
It may have been a surprise that Morris’ “The Bones” lost to Pearce’s and Brice’s “I Hope You’re Happy Now” for single after the year after the former smash won song of the year. But Morris probably wasn’t too displeased by it, as one of the winners for “I Hope You’re Happy Now” was her own former foremost collaborator, the late producer-writer Busbee. “We wrote this song about my story, and I guess it resonated with everybody,” said Pearce in accepting the award. “This is the last song that my producer worked on. Thank you, Busbee.”
The award for single of the year was presented by Martina McBride, for what quickly became obvious reasons. “For the first time in ACMs history, every nominated song is by a woman,” she said. “That’s right, this one’s for the girls.”
The show was co-hosted with Guyton by Keith Urban. Each had a key performance moment, Urban with the hyperactive “Miss Tumbleweed,” which included a camera attached to his guitar neck to afford a closeup of his solo. Guyton made an impression on the part of the audience that still may not be familiar with her yet — although she’s been issuing singles for many years, her debut album isn’t due til this summer — with “Hold On,” a soundtrack song that she refashioned into an end-of-pandemic anthem with the help of the Belmont University choir.
Other standout momentss included Carrie Underwood blowing out stained glass at the Mother Church with a gospel medley featuring vocal help from CeCe Winans; Jimmie Allen being surprised mid-number at the Bluebird by his supposedly out-of-town duet partner Brad Paisley; Blanco Brown presenting an award and, in doing so, making his first public appearance since being in an accident the hosts said was “serious to the point where they weren’t sure if Blanco was even going to walk again.”
A list of winners:
Entertainer of the Year
Female Artist of the Year
Male Artist of the Year
Duo of the Year
Dan + Shay
Group of the Year
New Female Artist of the Year (announced prior to the telecast)
New Male Artist of the Year (announced prior to the telecast)
Album of the Year
“Starting Over” – Chris Stapleton
Single of the Year
“I Hope You’re Happy Now” – Carly Pearce & Lee Brice
Song of the Year
“The Bones” – Maren Morris
Video of the Year (announced prior to the telecast)
“Worldwide Beautiful” – Kane Brown
Music Event of the Year (announced prior to the telecast)
“I Hope You’re Happy Now” – Carly Pearce & Lee Brice
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