It was as if the Academy of Country Music Awards put up a dare to the upcoming Grammys: Not only are we going to do a show out of Las Vegas a month ahead of yours, but we’re going to do at a stadium, we’re going to do it with four stages, we’re going to do it with no commercials (except for plenty of Prime Video trailers), and we’re going to bring it in at 2 hours, 1 minute and 24 seconds.
The ACMs may not have been “Music’s Biggest Night,” but it was Music’s Most Concise Night.
“We’re making history tonight,” host Dolly Parton said at the top of the show. “For the first time, we’re coming to you from Allegiant Stadium, and for the first time, we are streaming on Prime Video” — and, although it went unsaid, the truly historic part was not having a network or even cable broadcast component for a major awards show. “So in other words, we’re going around the world. What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.”
The ”world” part was not lost on the night’s performers and winners. As Variety talked to stars on the red carpet, one thing that repeatedly came up in any discussion about the switch from broadcast to streaming for the ACMs was the idea that, whatever audience might not find its way to Prime Video, having the show seen simultaneously by international audiences would be a boon for country music’s growing global market.
But if there are many devils in the details there, most of the audience was more interested in the details of Dolly’s dress than shifts in viewer demographics and whether streaming is indeed the future of awards shows. “I wanted to shine tonight. Did I make it?” Parton quizzed the crowd, saying “a disco ball fell on me” in a corridor. “I’m just hoping nothing punctures me or I’m gonna be sailing around this room like an inflatable doll, so catch me if you can!”
If Parton, in all her glitz, was overshadowed by anybody, it was… Parton. Or rather, Kelly Clarkson covering Dolly, as her climactic treatment of “I Will Always Love You” in tribute to the host was unquestionably the buzzy moment of the two hours. “I know that Whitney is smiling down on us tonight,” said the song’s writer and originator after Clarkson’s big belt of a moment. “She’d be proud of that. I was backstage trying not to cry my false eyelashes off, and slinging snot in every direction, and tears.”
When Miranda Lambert was named entertainer of the year for the first time, after having been nominated in vain going back to 2010, Parton enthused, “I have always loved that girl.” Lambert’s win was the first big surprise, the second being that she wasn’t there to accept.
“I cannot believe I’m not there to celebrate,” said Lambert, who is in London doing concerts. “This is my first time to miss the ACMs in 17 years, so my heart is a little broken. But I’m happy to be where I am. I’ve been waiting for this for a really, really long time. …This one goes out to all the singer-songwriter girls out there that are putting their blood, sweat and tears into their guitar strings. We did it. This is for us.”
The war going on across the world did not much impede the party, except for brief mentions in Parton’s opening remarks and, later, an Old Dominion acceptance speech. “Now I don’t want to be political and this is not,” said Parton. “I’d rather pass a kidney stone than do that. But I want us to send our love and hope to our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, so why don’t we dedicate this entire show to them and pray for peace in this crazy ole world.”
Matthew Ramsey of Old Dominion used part of the band’s acceptance speech for group of the year to mention the surrealism of life going on as usual while atrocities are being committed overseas. Asked by Variety to expound on his onstage remarks, Ramsey said, “I’m feeling very grateful that we are living in a country that allows us to fight for our dreams. These are things that we take for granted, that we work so hard and we imagine something and we can make it happen. And I’m feeling very grateful that we’re here. But also my heart just hurts for people right now are hiding in basements and trying to get out of the country, and their very way of life and their lives and those of their children are in danger all the time. It’s a strange feeling to be here dressing up in nice clothes and in this beautiful building. And I feel grateful, but also just silly at the same time, if that makes any sense.”
Country radio was cited by several winners — including Morgan Wallen — after radio programmers publicly expressed their disdain that no artists gave the expected shout-out to radio at last November’s CMA Awards. But there was one reference to radio that alluded to it being a double-edged sword.
TJ Osborne of Brothers Osborne, accepting for what has become an annual duo of the group award, noted the irony of getting this award the week after the sibling pair’s latest single was pulled by the label from further radio promotion, due to lost momentum. Backstage, he elaborated on the candor, when asked if the struggle to get airplay years into a career that makes getting awards even more important.
“I can speak for my brother here and say that comment was made in jest,” said John Osborne. “It’s not completely wrong, but that was made more in fun and the moment. Some people at radio have really been great to us. Not entirely, and that’s OK, so we keep pushing and trying to persevere. And what has kept us going for I would say the past eight years are these. It’s kept wind in our sails. Not only in terms of what it does with the fan base and the notoriety, but what it does for us as people that are constantly fighting what we feel is an uphill battle, even when we do win. It puts the wind in our manager’s sails and our label’s sails, our band and our crew. It’s a lot bigger than I think people actually know. These things really and truly do keep you going.”
Added TJ Osborne, “I mentioned this recently in an article with us feeling like we’re underdogs the whole time. And I think that’s part of it is that we don’t necessarily get the love that some of the artists do on radio. And I’m not necessarily criticizing anyone specifically for that. But it’s just a fact. And I guess tonight some people were upset that I said that? Like, I said a true statement? Our single literally got pulled last week, and we just got an award. If you got upset about that, maybe you’re part of the problem? But beyond that, that we get to get an award and get back up on stage and have that moment, it gives us that energy to keep pushing forward.”
There was representation involved in having Brittney Spencer join the brothers for a show-ending performance of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’.” Few could have missed the statement being made by having a gay man duet with a Black woman, representing two constituencies that haven’t always been at the forefront in country.
“Originally, I didn’t really understand the gravity of the moment when I came out and shared that with everyone, how that would help so many other people,” said TJ Osborne, adding that “I think country for a long time has had pride in itself in being, as Harlan Howard said, three chords and the truth. And I think that now that it is a place where you can live your own truth, as cliché as that is. And the awards show with so much different representation, with my brother and me and then Brittany up there, that was really cool, and it felt to me very natural and not forced. … It’s ultimately I think really the best for the country music fans out there that love country music but haven’t felt like they had a home for them for so many years.” At the brothers’ shows, he said, “We get to look out at the crowd and see people that feel proud and comfortable being themselves, whatever that is, and that is more rewarding than anything.”
Carly Pearce was a surprise first-time winner for female vocalist of the year, on the heels of her “29: Written in Stone” album, which chronicled her divorce from fellow country hitmaker Michael Ray.
“You can never prepare yourself to go through the things that I’ve gone through in the last couple of years,” Pearce said backstage. “But I think what I wanted to do with this album was just lay it all out there. And I think what I have found, my purpose is so much greater than just being a singer on a stage. I feel like my duty as a person and as a woman and as a songwriter is just to make sure that people know you can go through hard things, but you can also go through them, learn things from them and become better. And I think every time I get on stage now, I feel like people see me more like a human being than just a singer. And I truly would go through it all again, because I feel like I have found such a richer purpose in my life.”
Pearce won two awards, the other being for her duet with Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted to Be That Girl,” a song about being cheated upon. “I have had people in the industry, I have had fellow artists, I have had fans come up to me and share their stories of infidelity with me and how this song has made them pull over on the side of the road or made them start crying when they heard it for the first time. And I feel like I’m learning about my fans and about my peers in a whole new way, because we are relating on something that you don’t really want to talk about that is a very normal and realistic thing that happens in life. And for me, I feel like I know people better because of this song, and because of that subject matter and that I didn’t shy away from it. And I’m really proud of that.”
There was an awkward moment in the press room when a participant being piped in via Zoom said, “I know you’re probably so happy for Miranda. We’re happy for her too. So what does that feel like to finally have a female in that spot?”
“Well, I did win not too long ago,” pointed out Underwood, who got the top prize just a couple of years ago, which really made up for a drought at the point. “But it is always wonderful because there are so many incredibly talented women in the genre, and Miranda’s long overdue for winning this award. So I couldn’t be more proud of her as a sister in the genre of music, in this industry.”
Both Underwood and Aldean were asked about the moment in which she descended from the rafters during their duet, which some saw as a sign of her embracing her Vegas residency at Resorts World with production flourishes.
“I’ve gotten a taste for Vegas showmanship,” she allowed. “We were trying to think of ways to make this performance fresh and fun and, like, what else can we do? When somebody said, how would she feel about descending from the ceiling, I was like, I feel good about that! I was excited and it’s something I’ve never done before. And I’m always up for trying new things, adding a bit of danger into performance.”
Lainey Wilson was not a surprise for winning best new female artist, but she was a bit of a shocker when it came to also winning song of the year for “Things a Man Ought to Know.”
“Holy moley, y’all,” she said onstage. “I’m from a town of 264 people in northeast Louisiana where country music is life. …This song is about treating people right and it’s not something a man oughta know, it’s something we all ought to know, and it’s the golden rule.”
Backstage, WIlson said, “It was a 10-year overnight situation. They talk about it being a 10-year town, and dang it if didn’t go No. 1 almost 10 years to the date” she arrived in Nashville.
Wallen, predictably, did not come backstage to meet the press after winning album of the year for “Dangerous: The Double Album.” (He wasn’t alone in that; some less controversial stars, like male artist winner Chris Stapleton, also avoided it, maybe in that case because he has so little more to say after winning for so many years.) So it was left to his onstage comments to see how or if he’d address the controversy over the N-word that actually had him banned from the show in 2021, and any residual feelings about that. He didn’t.
“When I started this album, I was a kid,” Wallen said. “But at the time I put it out, I was a father, and that’s become more important to me than anything else. So, to my son, this album and this award will signify that his daddy was a fighter and he chased his dreams and worked hard to make them a reality.”