It didn’t take long for the first Texas joke to fly Sunday night at the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards.
“They say everything is bigger in Texas and that’s why we came here to celebrate the 50th anniversary,” cracked co-host Blake Shelton.
It was amusing — with the added benefit of being true.
Along with co-host Luke Bryan, Shelton presided over the largest awards show ever televised: A Guinness World Record-certified 70,252 filled AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
It’s a feat made all the more impressive when considering that less than a year ago, AT&T Stadium hosted the largest North American indoor concert ever — George Strait’s farewell to touring, which drew 104,793 to Jerry Jones’ billion-dollar sports palace.
A 3 1/2-hour spectacle packed with more than 20 performances and a healthy number of goofy shenanigans — witness Tony Romo throwing Bryan a pass or the peculiar sight of Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders serving as trophy girls throughout the evening — the 50th annual ACMs managed to live up to the hype, although it may take the reported five-year interval to recover from it.
With a handful of deeply emotional moments, the ACMs proved surprisingly sensitive. Whether it was the standing ovation given to the recovering Randy Travis or Garth Brooks’ moving tribute to his home state of Oklahoma, which marked the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing Sunday, the telecast didn’t shy away from plucking viewers’ heartstrings.
Despite all the pathos, with just nine awards handed out over the evening, the 50th annual ACMs often felt more like a concert punctuated by the occasional trophy presentation. Lindale native Miranda Lambert, who entered the evening with eight nominations, the most overall, ended up taking home just three prizes, including awards for album and song of the year.
“I don’t even realize what’s happening tonight,” Lambert said as she accepted the ACM for female vocalist of the year. “Texas, I love you. I love my job so much; I will never not love my job.”
Luke Bryan won entertainer of the year, a fan-voted category, which elicited audible gasps in the press room (Lambert was widely tipped to win).
“Listen, guys, what an amazing night of music,” a visibly excited Bryan said from the stage. “To be here in Texas with so many heroes that got awarded tonight, it’s incredible.”
Other winners included Florida Georgia Line, who took home honors for vocal duo of the year; Little Big Town, which won vocal group of the year; and Jason Aldean, who won male vocalist of the year.
Apart from the competitive categories, the ACMs marked a half-century with nine different Milestone awards, given to various superstars such as Brooks, Taylor Swift, Reba McEntire and Kenny Chesney.
“To be up here tonight is beyond any dream I’ve ever had,” said Chesney, who also performed.
The performances were a mixed bag, with some show-stoppers — Lambert’s scorching rendition of Little Red Wagon; McEntire’s potent medley capped with her feisty new single Ain’t Going Out Like That; Little Big Town’s hypnotic and smoldering Girl Crush; Alan Jackson’s still-heartbreaking Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning); and Brooks’ powerful tribute to the military — alongside some inert duds (Rascal Flatts’ nonstarter of a duet with Christina Aguilera; Martina McBride’s painfully off-key Independence Day).
One of the perennial gripes about the ACMs, and country music in general, is how little attention is paid to what has come before, history chewed up and spit out by an ever-more-indifferent, youthful fan base.
But there was a very moving moment, when Lambert and Natalie Hemby accepted the prize for song of the year (for Lambert’s Automatic), that gave more than a little hope that Nashville’s future is just fine.
“I hope I can be your Dean Dillon,” a tearful Hemby said to Lambert, “because you’re my George Strait.”
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713