The opening number name-checked the kind of callused-palmed nine-to-fiver who works hard all day, sweating out the Budweiser from the night before.
“You’re a Powerstroke diesel / backhoe-riding king of beers … living life in between the lines of clocking in and quitting time,” Jason Aldean sang at the outset of the Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday at T-Mobile Arena, giving a tip of the Stetson to country music’s ostensible core audience.
But the ACMs, increasingly cosmopolitan in sound and style, keep calling these salt-of-the-earth assumptions into question.
It’s not just all the movie stars on the red carpet or the endless glamorous gowns like the tight, disco-ball-inspired number Carrie Underwood managed to wriggle into.
It’s just that country has evolved so much — and by extension, so has its leading awards show — that it’s become less a genre defined by a specific sound catering to a specific crowd and more of a broad musical big top beneath which designer jeans outnumber Wranglers and cowboy hats have given way to impeccably sculpted coifs.
This year’s big winners underscored as much, their influences spanning rock, pop and hip-hop alongside honky tonk.
The night belonged to upstarts, from Lori McKenna becoming the first woman in the show’s 52 years to be named the ACM songwriter of the year to Thomas Rhett getting the upset of the show by winning male vocalist of the year over the likes of Keith Urban and Aldean. He also took song of the year honors, his first two ACM trophies. The Brothers Osborne bested Florida Georgia Line and others for vocal duo of the year, their first ACM win (Don’t shed any tears in your beer for Florida Georgia Line, however; they won for single record of the year and vocal event of the year).
Speaking of Florida Georgia Line, they testified to all this musical cross-pollinating by joining the Backstreet Boys for a pyro-punctuated take on their hit “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” So did a roaring tribute to Chuck Berry early in the show, when co-host Luke Bryan pounded on a black piano like he was trying to reduce the thing to kindling during a raucous take on “Johnny B. Goode,” flanked by his co-hosting counterpart Dierks Bentley and Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, as he expertly ripped Berry’s signature lead.
Sure, plenty of country veterans had their moment on Sunday. Aldean won entertainer of the year, the night’s biggest award; Miranda Lambert scored album of the year, the fifth time she has taken top honors in that category in six albums; Little Big Town was named vocal group of the year, their eighth ACM award (after the show, group members said they were going to celebrate with In-N-Out burgers, Champagne and the season finale of “Big Little Lies”).
So while this year’s ACMs didn’t signal a total changing of the country music guard, there was a strong infusion of newer faces getting wins and turning in strong performances, from the R&B-influenced breeze of Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” which came and went like a trip through the countryside with the windows down, to Maren Morris’ regret-stung ballad “I Could Use a Love Song,” which she delivered in a voice that smoldered and glowed like embers of a campfire.
Then there was the aforementioned Brothers Osborne, who ripped through their liver- and lung-ravaging hit “It Ain’t My Fault” from a stage in the crowd prior to receiving their award for best new vocal group.
Backstage after their wins, the siblings laughed as giddily as if they’d just had a blast of laughing gas.
“It feels expensive; it feels like success.” T.J. Osborne beamed as he waved one of the two gleaming silver trophies he was clutching, hair combed back, no cowboy hat necessary.