“I have the honor of hosting the longest running countdown show in America,” Kix Brooks announced early during the American Country Countdown Awards. His famous radio event spawned its own TV extravaganza in 2014; after a year off, it returned today (May 1). The ACCAs celebrate country music’s commercial juggernauts: Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Carrie Underwood were among the performers. Billboard ranked the performances from worst to best.
Dan + Shay – “Nothin’ Like You” and “From The Ground Up”
Dan + Shay lost to Florida Georgia Line in the “Group/Duo of the Year” category, but the pair got to perform a pair of their songs, including “From The Ground Up,” the first taste of their next album. Two fans were treated to an onstage view of the performance.
Florida Georgia Line – “H.O.L.Y.”
FGL used their network TV time to promote “H.O.L.Y.,” the first single from their next album. Though the title suggests the religious, the song is a celebration of the carnal: the title stands for “High On Loving You,” and it relies on a number of trite love-as-drug metaphors. One advantage of playing a ballad at the ACCAs — the duo wasn’t out of breath when they gave their acceptance speech.
Luke Bryan – “Huntin’, Fishin’ And Lovin’ Every Day”
There’s a danger of staging awards shows so close together: Bryan performed this single less than a month ago at the ACMs. He was more vigorous this time, possibly inspired by the thought of converting L.A. natives who don’t have easy access to two of the pastimes that lend the song its title.
Thomas Rhett – “Die A Happy Man”
Rhett’s saccharine ballad won the Song Of The Year award, beating out a pair of Luke Bryan songs, Zac Brown Band’s “Homegrown,” and an upstart challenge from the Brothers Osborne’s “Stay A Little Longer.” Rhett band’s provided tasty accompaniment during the bare-bones slice of country soul, and the crowd screamed whenever the singer went off script with an ad-lib: “You know I could, girl.”
Cole Swindell – “You Should Be Here”
Swindell wrote “You Should Be Here” with Ashley Gorley, who has a number of impressive credits, including Lee Brice’s “That Don’t Sound Like You,” Jason Aldean’s “Tonight Looks Good On You,” and Jake Owen’s “Life Of The Party.” It’s an effective, melancholy ballad that doesn’t ask a lot of listeners, and Swindell performed it with the minimum of drama.
Sam Hunt – “Make You Miss Me”
Hunt has repeatedly come up empty-handed at country music awards shows, but the ACCAs gave him the amusingly titled “Breakthrough Male Of The Year” trophy. He responded with “Make You Miss Me,” a sneaky tune that promises trouble for a future lover. His guitarist provided harmonies, seeming to strengthen the menace of the inter-relationship mind games. Hunt was rewarded for his efforts by a big hug from the actor Terry Crews.
Kelsea Ballerini – “Dibs”
Though Ballerini has another single climbing the charts, she chose to perform her last single, “Dibs,” her second consecutive No. 1 hit. The performance was full of heavy handed social media references, but it didn’t drag down the playful track. Ballerini also wore a unique outfit, a romper that came with multi-colored light-up polka dots.
Cam – “Mayday”
Cam got a chance to sing with Martina McBride, one of her genre’s biggest stars, and a second opportunity to perform a track from her very own Untamed album. Though “Mayday” stalled on the charts, it’s one of the best tracks on Untamed, anguished and gripping. But the crowd didn’t appear especially interested by the track, and the band behind Cam was too subdued to win them over.
The show kicked off with a performance “to celebrate a fantastic year for women in country.” As Sara Evans put it later, “country music is a team sport,” so McBride, Nettles, and Cam revisited a hit from McBride’s back catalog. Nettles’ voice was especially potent, occasionally in danger of overwhelming her companions, and the camera took the song’s mandate literally, focusing only on female fans in the crowd as they bobbed their heads and sang along.
Martin McBride – “Reckless”
The title track to McBride’s new album has a bold title, but the song isn’t foolish enough to leave behind the sturdy formula that made McBride such a successful singer. Interestingly, the track features a writing credit from Sam Hunt’s right-hand man, Zach Crowell. At the ACCAs, McBride’s performance was efficient and professional.
Brooks & Dunn – “Red Dirt Road”
After winning the Nash Icon Award, Brooks & Dunn treated the crowd to a laid-back performance of “Red Dirt Road,” a No. 1 single from 2003 that also enjoyed crossover success, peaking at No. 25 on the Hot 100. The stakes were low, but the duo’s catalog remains vital, and the pair seemed to be enjoying themselves — near the end of the song, Brooks gave Dunn a playful push.
Carrie Underwood – “Church Bells”
Underwood was introduced by Luke Wilson, a surprising appearance from an actor who has mostly been absent for a decade. Underwood won the Female Vocalist Of The Year category, and she performed “Church Bells,, a no-nonsense song about domestic abuse. She had an unusual, personalized microphone stand – petite and made out of gold chainlinks – but the performance was looser than the gothic rendition from last month’s ACMs.
Keith was the night’s final act, and he had the evening’s hardest assignment: honoring one of country’s greatest singers, the recently deceased Merle Haggard. Keith barreled through several of Haggard’s finest songs — “Mama Tried,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink,” “Workin Man Blues,” “Silver Wings,” “Okie From Muskogee”– in a sedate but effective performance.
Chris Janson – “Buy Me A Boat”
Janson performed on a small island stage with guitar, harmonica, and a kick drum. “Buy Me A Boat” was an unexpected hit in 2015, and one of the most amusing hits on the country charts during that last year. Janson has struggled to match the success of his breakout single, but this performance was a reminder of the song’s power. His harmonica solo outro was an added bonus.