Carrie Underwood opened her acceptance speech for the Academy of Country Music’s 2020 entertainer of the year prize with a pleased sigh of a statement: “2020, man.”
Her slightly quizzical exultation had to do with the fact that she had tied with Thomas Rhett for the ACM Awards’ top prize, proving that, for her at least, not all the weirdnesses of this year are bad weirdnesses.
“I am more than happy to share this with Thomas Rhett,” she said in her speech, after exchanging an elbow-bump with telecast host Keith Urban (pictured above).
Rhett returned the compliment backstage, doing a virtual press conference over Zoom with members of the media. “It’s been such a weird year. I mean, obviously I’m talking to all of y’all on a conference call,” Rhett said, “When (Urban) said there was a tie, I was like, oh my gosh this is amazing — first time in ACM history that anyone has tied for entertainer of the year. And for me to get to tie this award with Carrie Underwood is just mind-blowing. … Tonight, being here at the Opry (House), getting to hear an idol of mine mention my name along with Carrie :Underwood, it made me feel like I’m not the new guy anymore. Being such a huge fan of Carrie since I can remember, since I was 15 or 16 years old, and winning such an iconic award with her, it just solidified a lot of things for me.”
The ACMs were broadcast from three different locations in Nashville — besides the Grand Ole Opry House, the telecast used the Ryman Auditorium and the Bluebird Cafe — all without an audience. The acceptance speeches and hosting were all live, and the performances were a well-blended mixture of live and pre-recorded.
“This is the most unusual awards show I’ve been to,” Underwood admitted backstage, “but I think everybody did such a great job and really came together to celebrate music. It’s that thing where everybody’s just figuring out how to do what we do in a different way.”
The singer would have faced questions about the status of women in country, and how the ACMs reflected or superseded that, even if she hadn’t seemed to welcome the topic, as a performer, by doing a medley of songs from country icons Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire and Martina McBride.
“I mean, you can’t have too much of a good thing, so I would always love to see more women represented and given opportunities,” Underwood said. “But we’ve been taking steps in the right direction for a while now, which is good to see. But also me getting to honor some of the women that we’re all standing on their shoulders, as I said… I think it was a really great night for females in country music.”
Asked if she feels flattered by the next generation of women in country venerating her the way she venerates Cline and company, Underwood waxed humble. “I’ve gotten to talk to Gabby Barrett a bit because we came up the same way” (via “American Idol”), she said. But “I don’t think I can ever look at myself like that. I feel like a tourist still. … I always say I’m waiting for people to figure me out and leave me behind or something. But I will never look at myself the way I or anybody else should look at those other women that I got to sing their songs tonight.”
Host Urban came into the show as the previous entertainer of the year winner, nothing that, since the show had been delayed five months, his 17 months holding the title “technically means I’m the longest reigning entertainer of a given year. I’ll take it. But,” said Urban, who wasn’t nominated in the category this year, ” I’ll happily turn it over.”
Rhett said that he had been enjoying the “silver lining” this year of “getting intentional with my wife.” “Honestly, it’s been such a blessing in disguise, this whole year. I would say the first 30, 40 days into quarantine, I was kind of losing my mind going ‘I need to play a show, I need to write a song, I need to do something.’ And then one day my wife looked at me and she said, ‘Honey, you’re not going to play a show this year. You need to just let it be and relax and be with our family.’ And it’s been really amazing to get to spend this much quality time with my kids. This is the most nights in a row I’ve got to put ‘em to bed and wake up with ‘em.”
In an unpredictable year for that top slot, Underwood might have been considered a frontrunner, even though she hadn’t won it since a two-year run as the ACMs’ entertainer of the year in 2009-2010. There has been a widespread feeling that Underwood is an undervalued superstar in the format, as well as sentiment that women in general being overlooked in the category present bad optics for both the ACMs and the CMA Awards, a comparable broadcast. Underwood had been favored to win entertainer of the year at last November’s CMAs, so the backlash to Garth Brooks winning it instead was so sharp, Brooks took himself out of contention this year. Underwood remains a favorite going into this year’s CMAs — to the extent that anyone who’s been completely shut out for years can be considered a frontrunner.