The 2019 Academy of Country Music Awards held on Sunday night (April 7) were a continuance of a pattern that we've seen happen for the past few years, where the female artists largely ignored by country radio use their moments on live television to stake a claim to their being more than deserving of the same airtime as their male counterparts.
Many of the best moments of the telecast came not only from female solo sets, but from duets featuring male partners who realized in short order that they couldn't just phone in their performance. For too many of the talents onstage, this night will be one of the few over the next few months in which they could make a name for themselves within the country hierarchy, and not an opportunity was wasted.
Among the highlights of the night were an Americana superstar clearly having the most fun of anyone onstage tonight, and many of the performers choosing a less-is-more approach to their segments. Here's how Billboard ranks each performance from worst to first.
Chrissy Metz, featuring Lauren Alaina, Mickey Guyton, Maddie & Tae, and Carrie Underwood, "I'm Standing With You"
The star wattage of Metz's collaborators wasn't enough to make up for the lead singer's inexperience – this was her singing debut – or her clear nervousness onstage.
Blake Shelton, "God's Country"
George Strait, "God and Country Music"
While the title of the two songs may be similar, even if their themes aren't, what truly brought them together in many minds tonight was in their onstage productions making many wonder if they were watching ads for Ford trucks.
Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line, "Can't Hide Red"
Luke Bryan, "Knockin' Boots"
Both songs are almost guaranteed to be two of the biggest country hits of 2019, but the lackluster lyrics paired with the lackluster performances gave hints to why the acts involved may need to worry about the newer talents starting to emerge on the country scene, and all are hungry for the spots that the veterans currently hold.
Brooks & Dunn and Luke Combs, "Brand New Man"
Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne, "All My Favorite People"
Both of these performances shared a common trait with many of the special duets featured on Sunday night, in that – whether there wasn't enough time to rehearse as needed, or there were technical difficulties that only appeared once live – all offered poor sound mixes or missed cues that soured moments that may have otherwise been winners.
Jason Aldean, "Lights Come On"/"Don't You Wanna Stay" (with Kelly Clarkson)/ "Dirt Road Anthem" Medley
A medley of hits to celebrate Aldean's being named the ACM Dick Clark Artist of the Decade, the segment largely felt flat. Whether this was due to how long the show had been on by the time this segment aired, or just the fact that better performances surrounded it, who can say?
Miranda Lambert, "Kerosene"/"Gunpowder & Lead"/"Mama's Broken Heart"/"White Liar"/"Little Red Wagon" Medley
Dan + Shay with Kelly Clarkson, "Keeping Score"
The next two entries all managed to do one aspect of Aldean's segment better, in that Lambert's electrifying performance encapsulates what one hopes for in an awards show medley, and Clarkson's appearance beside the young duo of Dan + Shay featured the vocalists all connecting with each other in a way that uplifted the entire moment.
George Strait and Miranda Lambert, "Run"
George Strait, "Every Little Honky Tonk Bar"
The legendary Strait was all over tonight's ACM Awards, a welcome presence for those in the audience who may have wanted for a more traditional country feel to the night's proceedings. While the duet with Lambert was fantastic, both it and the telecast's closing number had a sense of safety to them, in that perhaps better song choices were left behind in favor of a pair that would end up being just fine.
Reba McEntire, "Freedom"
Tonight's host shifted into performer gear for a rendition of "Freedom," and in doing so became the anti-Strait of the evening, in that she captivated the audience with both a performance and its production. The number featured the lyrics displayed behind McEntire while she sang, and a guitar solo that nodded toward the Hall of Famer not relying on the same sound that she found success harnessing throughout the 80s and 90s.
Keith Urban, "Burden"
Luke Combs, "Beautiful Crazy"
Both performers broke the mold of the average awards show performance by taking the opportunity the night afforded them to create something new out of the familiar. Whereas many use the show to debut a new single, Urban performed a stirring cover of Foy Vance's "Burden," which he stated he isn't sure will even appear on any upcoming releases; instead, he just felt compelled to perform it for anyone facing a particularly hard burden that may have needed the message.
For "Crazy," Combs peeled away any overproduction that many would have felt tempted to add for entertainment purposes, and instead performed a stirring version of the hit single. Featuring Amanda Shires accompanying on fiddle, the arrangement breathed a second life into a song that many would have stated was perfect as is beforehand.
Old Dominion, "Make It Sweet"
Thomas Rhett, "Look What God Gave Her"
For two acts that have quickly made a name for themselves as new perennial headliners in the past calendar year, both Old Dominion and Rhett took the same approach to their performances tonight, in that they left the staid moments to others and just offered the audience a little fun in the form of songs featuring infectious lyrics that bring a smile to any face.
Kane Brown, "Good As You"/"Saturday Nights" (with Khalid)
Brown's time onstage at the ACMs was a portrait in contrasts, as his collaboration with R&B star Khalid featured the young country performer looking lost at times, and seemingly content to merely smile while watching his collaborator take the spotlight. What kept this moment from being ranked lower was Brown's "Good As You," which saw the singer look more comfortable in front of the cameras than ever before, and may rate as the moment when he became a true superstar within the country genre.
Little Big Town, "The Daughters"
The latest single from the country group had already been building buzz online in the days preceding the ACM telecast, but many radio personnel will have gone to bed on Sunday night knowing that their work week would begin tomorrow with an avalanche of calls asking about the song, as few debuts have had the visible impact that "Daughters" had tonight on those listening in the audience. It already feels like the type of song where its lyrics will soon be requested in tattoo shops around the country.
Chris Stapleton, "A Simple Song"
Stapleton has reached the point in his career where a masterful performance, like the one he had tonight, begins to feel a little mediocre just due to the many great awards show performances that precede it on his resume. Quiet and intimate are two qualities hard to pull off on a Vegas stage, but Stapleton did so tonight, alongside wife and collaborator Morgane Stapleton.
Carrie Underwood, "Southbound"
Underwood is always good for a show-stopping number, and tonight was no different, as she took her moment in a different direction than anyone else and began her performance offstage at a Vegas pool party. Bringing the party indoors, it was a moment of light that counteracted some of the seriousness that surrounded it.
Showcasing some of the talent that has not only led them to being named Best New Group by the ACMs tonight, but to become one of the most successful groups in country music today in short order, Lanco highlighted one of the songs that will be on their upcoming sophomore release. To say that "Rival" is a departure may be overstating what many would assume from a band with only one album to their name thus far, but I'd be willing to bet that few people would have imagined a sound reminiscent of Arcade Fire coming from these guys anytime soon.
Dierks Bentley and Brandi Carlile, "Travelin' Light"
While Carlile is one of the biggest names within Americana, don't be surprised if this performance doesn't make many country listeners begin asking why they aren't hearing her on their local country radio stations more often, as no one took over the stage tonight quite like the recent Grammy winner. Performing alongside Bentley, who seemed more than content to watch his collaborator throughout, with only her silver jacket and gold microphone outshining the smile that was was on display from beginning to end of their duet.
Ashley McBryde, "Girl Going Nowhere"
Eric Church and Ashley McBryde, "The Snake"
It's not often that a performance that ends in a standing ovation could be considered only the second-best moment of an artist's night, but McBryde's 2019 ACM Awards experience was far from common. On a night that may be looked at years from now as the night that McBryde truly became a star, the singer delivered a stirring rendition of her "Girl Going Nowhere" to celebrate her win for Best New Female Vocalist by the ACM, ending with the crowd on their feet. However, the moment that may define tonight in the career of McBryde was when she took the stage alongside Eric Church to perform a duet of his ominous allegoric tune "The Snake." More than holding her own against the superstar, as each traded off verses featuring a pair of snakes posturing before a fight, their combined talents made an already potent song even more relevant as those watching could merely watch in awe.