From throwback classics to current hits, the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards gave us lots to talk (and tweet) about. Here are the night’s performances, from worst to best.
Rascal Flatts and Christina Aguilera, “Shotgun” and “Riot”
ACMs first-timer Aguilera matched her crocheted dress to Joe Don Rooney’s shredded pants to the band’s gleaming white piano -- so, they sort of looked like a united front even if they didn’t sound like it. That’s as far as we got in processing this collaboration; maybe check back next year?
Dan + Shay and Nick Jonas, “Jealous” and “Chains”
Hey, there’s Nick Jonas and two other slick-haired young’uns harmonizing on stage -- have the Jonas Brothers reunited and gone country?! Nope, it’s actually a peculiar pairing of the youngest Jonas and vocal duo of the year nominees Dan + Shay. A chuckling Blake Shelton introduced them as a “one-time-only special mashup,” and we hope he wasn’t lying.
Lady Antebellum, “Long Stretch of Love”
This was a thoroughly acceptable rendition of the group’s current single -- they pulled out the majority of the stops. If it seemed like something was lacking, singer Hilary Scott had more important matters on her mind.
Jason Aldean, "Tonight Looks Good on You," "My Kinda Party," “Hicktown," and "She's Country"
The theme of the night was “Sing Your Old Hit Songs.” So why couldn’t he do “Fly Over States”?
Florida Georgia Line, “Sippin’ on Fire”
Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley were double winners, snapping up both vocal duo of the year and vocal event of the year trophies. They went the literal route for their performance, with a semi-impressive display of pyrotechnics.
Luke Bryan, “I See You”
Bryan earns points for easily switching modes, from cohost to performer and back again -- and dang, he worked the crowd like a pro. He loses points, though, for his inexplicable polo shirt.
Miranda Lambert “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Little Red Wagon”
The sassy and unconventional “Red Wagon” translated better on this stage than it did at the Grammys -- maybe because the ACMs audience is pure country and simply “got it.” Still, we wish Lambert had embraced the crazy on either tune -- or both! -- as they basically demand some “Blank Space”-style antics.
Kenny Chesney, “Young” and “Wild Child”
Looking extra tanned and respectfully sleeveless, Chesney charmed the crowd with two tender tunes: 2002’s “Young” and current single “Wild Child” (minus duet partner Grace Potter). Immediately afterward, he was presented with one of the evening’s approximately 800 Milestone Awards.
Blake Shelton, “Sangria”
In this perfectly pleasant performance, cohost Shelton trotted out utility player Gwen Sebastian, who’d also chimed in on his wife’s set. (Side note: Country has officially run out of kinds of alcohol to sing about.)
Brad Paisley, “Crushin’ It”
Paisley began his performance by literally tossing aside his acoustic guitar in favor of an electric, and he ended it sliding onto his knees; he also closed out the show by teaming up with Darius Rucker for “Let the Good Times Roll.” In short, he crushed it.
Martina McBride, “Independence Day”
As if challenging Church’s nine-year-old throwback, McBride transported the audience all the way back to 1993 with this Grammy-nominated hit. Ninety percent voice and 10 percent legs, her performance should serve as a stage-commanding study guide for the Maddie & Tae generation.
George Strait, “All My Ex's Live in Texas” and “Let It Go”
The living legend had the crowd singing along to his 1987 hit and soaking in his forthcoming new single. (Strait was last year’s entertainer of the year and has won the award in four different decades.) The performance was a nice lead-in to his Milestone Award acceptance speech.
Reba McEntire, “Is There Life Out There?” “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” “Fancy,” and “Going Out Like That”
After being sweetly intro’d by daughter-in-law Kelly Clarkson, McEntire tore into a medley that included hits old (“Georgia”) and brand spanking new (“Going Out”). We thought we caught a glimpse of her losing steam toward the end but then reminded ourselves that she’s 60 freaking years old. Well done, queen Reba.
Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”
Jackson wrote this patriotic salute immediately after the September 11 attacks, and nothing will ever match the poignancy of its debut at the 2001 CMA Awards -- just eight weeks after those horrific events. But this performance—a tribute to the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people and injured nearly 700—also clearly hit a chord with viewers. (We spotted audience member Eric Church visibly moved behind his Ray-Bans.)
Garth Brooks, “All-American Kid”
We’re pretty sure he was lip syncing -- and we don’t care. The most awarded entertainer of the year used his comeback performance to honor U.S. troops (including the late Chris Kyle) as well as his home state of Oklahoma. As he sang, scores of service men and women streamed down the aisles of AT&T Stadium, providing the night’s emotional peak.
Brooks & Dunn, “My Maria”
After a five-year-long Ross-and-Rachel-like break, the incomparable duo of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn reunited to perform the feel-good, falsetto-drenched classic. And just like that, all was right in the country world.
Eric Church and Keith Urban, “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” and “Raise ’Em Up”
To kick off the show, Church dusted off his beer-raising 2006 ode to Merle Haggard -- with a little help from his bud Urban. The two then transitioned seamlessly into their current sentimental single. “Make some love, then babies come…,” Urban crooned in the final verse of “Raise ’Em Up.” Improvised Church, whose second child was born in February: “…Yes, they do.”
Little Big Town, “Girl Crush”
This solemn performance of the band’s controversial song was perfection: a no-frills set, subdued black outfits, and powerhouse lead vocals from Karen Fairchild. The kicker was Fairchild singing the last few bars directly into the camera -- as if she were speaking directly to all the detractors.
Dierks Bentley, “Riser”
Backed by strings and singing to a hushed crowd, Bentley scored big with the title track of his Grammy-nominated album. “Riser,” written by Steve Moakler and Travis Meadows, showcases Bentley’s depth as an artist as spectacularly as “Drunk on a Plane” demonstrates his goofy side. He’s already performed the tune on the Late Show With David Letterman -- here’s hoping it’s his next single…and No. 1.