On Wednesday night (Sept. 16), the Academy of Country Music finally got to hold its long-delayed awards ceremony. Postponed from the original April 5 date after the pandemic sent everyone into lockdown, the 2020 edition of the ACM Awards moved to Nashville for the first time, adjusted to social distancing and no audience and still managed to pull of a show that had plenty of striking moments—including a tie for the coveted entertainer of the year.

There were none of the usual cutaways to the audience or shots of Taylor Swift singing along to every song with gusto. Instead, a raft of top names performed from three iconic Nashville venues: the Grand Ole Opry House, Ryman Auditorium, and the Bluebird Cafe, while Keith Urban hosted live from the Grand Ole Opry.

Here are some of the top moments from the evening.

Country Takes a Stand

Unlike country music from the ‘70s, contemporary country artists seldom take a stand on social issues via song or speaking out. However, these are, as we frequently are reminded, unprecedented times and tonight’s show had more than a few nods to the turbulent era. In his opening remarks, host Urban referenced fighting “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 first responders, along with the voices crying out for equality in all walks of life, have echoed around the world and right here in our country community.” Then Kane Brown performed “Worldwide Beautiful,” an uplifting song about loving everyone despite our differences that was written before George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police, but released in the wake of the subsequent protests. Brown prefaced the song, performed with a choir socially distanced in the Ryman balcony, “I just want everybody to love everybody and this is the song I wrote for it.”

Carrie Underwood Shows Why She Stands Among Legends

In a salute to this fall’s 95th anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry, Underwood paid tribute to a number of pioneering women artists who came before her. With the perfect blend of reverence and confidence, Underwood saluted nearly 40 years of women in song from Patsy Cline’s 1961 ballad “Crazy” to Martina McBride’s 1998 soaring “Broken Wing,” with songs made famous by Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire sandwiched in-betweenin-between. Underwood showed why she, like the icons before her, was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2008.

Pour One Out

Country music has never hidden its infatuation with alcohol, but, for those who were counting, liquor got more shout outs than God in a crazy, upsetting year where imbibing has often seemed like the only sensible solution. From Eric Church’s “Drink In My Hand,” Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita,” Kelsea Ballerini’s “Hole in the Bottle,” Morgan Wallen’s “Whiskey Glasses,” Thomas Rhett’s “Beer Can’t Fix” (featuring Jon Pardi), and Keith Urban and P!nk’s “One Too Many,” the performances were a lively reminder of why, as Riley Green sings in “I Wish Grandpas Never Died,” heaven—or the ACMs—may really be the place were “coolers never run out of cold Bud Light.”

Dan + Shay Show How It’s Done

Dan + Shay had already claimed the trophy for duo of the year before they performing a stripped-down version of their new hit, “I Should Probably Go to Bed,” otherwise, the performance would have cinched the decision. Similar to the acoustic version of the song from Ocean Way studio they released several days ago, tonight’s rendition highlights Shay Mooney’s stunning vocals and Dan Smyers’ gorgeous arrangement without the luscious orchestration and layered harmonies on the radio version. The song works no matter how they present it because it’s just that good.

Taylor Swift Proves You Can Go Home Again

The last time Swift appeared on the Academy of Country Music Awards was seven years ago. For her return, she kept it decidedly low key, from accompanying herself on acoustic guitar to her lovely, yet un-glam appearance on “Betty.” The song about high school regret shows what Swift does best: tell a compelling, emotional story. And isn’t that what country music is all about? She can be pop all she wants, but country will always embrace her when they songs are this good.

Eric Church Channels Johnny Cash… Literally

Just like Underwood paid homage to country forbearers, Eric Church turned the first half of his performance over to “Ragged Old Flag,” lightly strumming through the entire length of Cash’s spoken word homage to Old Glory that came out post-Watergate in 1974. He then launched into “Stick That in Your Country Song,” his defiant look at a current America that is bent, if not downright broken. It is the antithesis of the jingoistic, easy patriotism that country songs often resort to. Instead, it is a hard look —delivered with a snarl of righteous indignation by Church— at where the promise of America the Beautiful has gone awry, whether it’s in Detroit, where “the jails are full [and] the factories empty” or Baltimore “where dreams become guns and drugs and the only way out is to shoot out or run.” Like Cash, Church has never shied away from telling it like he sees it and tonight was no exception.

Mickey Guyton Serves as Country Music’s Conscience

Like Church’s song, country radio already passed on the weighty “What Are You Gonna Tell Her,” but the song about empowering young women has found a life of its own and Mickey Guyton’s resplendent version performed tonight, accompanied by Urban on piano in a lovely, quiet statement of solidarity, will find favor with a new crop of listeners. When Guyton put her hand gently on her pregnant stomach as she sang, with questioning anguish, “what are you gonna tell her,” the simple move took the song to a new emotional height.

Kelsea Ballerini Brings It Down Home

Were it not for her sparkly, fiery red outfit, it would have been possible to believe that Ballerini was performing “Hold in the Bottle” at an impromptu backyard barbeque. Performing the twangy, acoustic rendition similar to the version on Ballerini, the new companion album to March’s Kelsea, Ballerini was delightfully charming and sassy as she performed backed by three acoustic guitarists and a keyboardists.

Maren Morris Tells It Like It Is

Snagging her first ACM female vocalist win, Maren Morris, who also performed an emotional “To Hell & Back,” may be the first winner to tell so many truths in one short acceptance speech. First she admitted, “This is so weird talking to no one,” as she looked out onto the empty Grand Ole Opry audience and then said she thought she’d never win the award (she had lost the past three consecutive years). After thanking her husband and new son, she confessed “Oh my God, I have to pee.” She finished with reminding people to vote on Nov. 3. It was a short but sweet speech that had it been delivered in front of a live audience would have garnered laughs and cheers.


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