The 55th Academy of Country Music Awards bore a very different feel from the usual high-energy, fan-filled fest typically held in Las Vegas. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the April awards show was put on hold before it was finally broadcast on Wednesday. This year was the first time that the ACM Awards were held in Nashville, despite the city’s reputation as the home of country music.
Nominees and performers were placed in three different iconic venues around Music City—the Grand Ole Opry House, the Bluebird Cafe, and Ryman Auditorium—in order to comply with social distancing regulations. All three of these venues hold special places in the hearts of country fans, especially the Bluebird Cafe, as it is a venue where many stars started their careers.
Hosted by Keith Urban, this night of celebration for country music was off to a great start with a medley performance by all the nominees for Entertainer of the Year. Beginning with Luke Bryan, the show moved between the three venues as each nominee gave it their all.
Although the venues were empty, the performers did not lack enthusiasm. With the exception of Taylor Swift’s “Betty,” the more acoustic and subdued performances were at the Bluebird—or at least in front of a greenscreen of the cafe, in the cases of Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton. The more energetic performances, on the other hand, were held in the Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium.
One of the more notable performances of the evening was Carrie Underwood’s tribute to the women of country music for the 95th anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry. Honoring women who paved the way in country music, Underwood covered songs by Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Reba McEntire, Barbara Mandrell, and Martina McBride. Underwood’s beautiful tribute took viewers through the ages of country music and reminded them of the women who helped make country music what it is today.
The highlight and biggest draw of the evening was Taylor Swift’s return to the ACM stage after seven years. Swift surprised everyone, including her record label, by suddenly dropping Folklore during quarantine. The album’s abrupt release was not the only surprise Swift had in store—Folklore is Swift’s most country-sounding album in years. Swift always played with a pop-country sound before going completely pop with 2014’s 1989, but she seems to be making a major nod toward her country roots with this whimsical addition. Instead of completely writing from her own experience, as Swift was known for doing on past albums, she instead created a series of “folklores” to be passed down to the next generation by her fans. One of these folklores, “Betty,” is part of a trio of songs about a love triangle between teenagers. Being the most country-influenced song on Folklore, it was the perfect choice for her return to the ACM Awards.
Swift gave a very laid-back performance of “Betty,” even applying her own makeup and styling her own hair for the stage. It was just Swift and her guitar, which is a very different set-up for anyone who has seen Swift’s large-scale productions for her tours. The song was mellow and beautiful, and it was perfect for a potentially brief comeback to the country music world. The performance completely encompassed the chill, concert-in-front-of-the-cottage-fireplace vibe of her most recent album.
As for the awards of the night, there was a major surprise during the announcement of Entertainer of the Year. Keith Urban, the 2019 recipient of the award, was tasked with passing the torch to the new winner. As he opened the envelope, he was shocked to see that there was not just one winner for the award. Instead, there was a tie between Thomas Rhett and Carrie Underwood, yet again something that has never happened in the history of the ACM Awards.
It was, however, no surprise that Dan + Shay won the award for Duo of the Year. Ever since the release of their first song “You + Me” in 2013, the duo has been non-stop climbing the ladder of success. Old Dominion took home two awards, one for Group of the Year, for the second year in a row, and another for Song of the Year for its hit “One Man Band.” Maren Morris took home the award for Female Artist of the Year and Luke Combs for Male Artist of the Year.
This special edition of the ACM Awards was filled with many surprises. Despite setbacks and bumps along the road to premiering the awards, the live event went smoothly across all platforms. It was even hard to tell that some of the duets, such as the one between Keith Urban and P!nk, were not held in the same room, because of how well they flowed. Hopefully, next year will bring about a normal awards season, but as for now, 2020 will go down as one of the most unique and successful years in the Academy of Country Music Awards’ history.
Photo Courtesy of CBS