Live from Las Vegas: 45th Academy of Country Music Awards
Reporting from Las Vegas -- For most people, the 2 a.m. closing-time phone call to an ex- is an act of desperation, but Lady Antebellum turned it into a source of inspiration in their hit “Need You Now,” which brought the Augusta, Ga., trio top awards, including vocal group, single and song of the year Sunday at the 45th Academy of Country Music Awards ceremony here.
The ACM’s reigning entertainer of the year, Carrie Underwood, made it two in a row in something of an upset over country-pop princess Taylor Swift, who outsold every other act in pop music in 2009 and otherwise dominated country and pop, also launching her first headlining arena tour with a slate of sold out shows across the country. Swift gave Underwood a hug as the “American Idol” winner took the stage to accept the award, which was voted on by fans during the show and over the last several weeks.
Opening the entertainer of the year award to fan voting is part of an expanding effort by the West Coast-based ACM to make its yearly honors more interactive. This year, viewers also got to text in their choices of which song soon-to-part duo Brooks & Dunn would sing during their farewell ACM performance together. "My Maria” was the winner.” Fans also voted to select the finalists for the top new artist award, and gave the win to former peanut farmer Luke Bryan, who noted, “It is impossible for a human being to shake more than right now” as he clutched the trophy.
In many respects the results this year carried a “life is a bar” flavor, from Lady Antebellum’s rookie ascension to a valedictory duo award to Brooks & Dunn that gave them one more for the road, even though Sugarland’s career was more impressive last year by most standards.
Firebrand Miranda Lambert collected both female vocalist and album awards for her third effort, “Revolution,” which was a significant step forward for her artistically. “You’ve got to be kidding!” she said when she accepted the female vocalist trophy. “Reba McEntire, Lee Ann Womack, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift….and me,” she said as boyfriend and country star, Blake Shelton, looked on with a wide grin.
The awards themselves, however, were almost an afterthought in a three-hour show, broadcast on CBS, in which musical performances outnumbered envelope-ripping about two to one, and acceptance speeches were limited, sometimes brutally, to 30-second slots to keep the momentum from flagging.
The ACM has studied the market well, noting recent research showing country fans love award shows more than the average TV viewer—hence the strong ratings uptick for last year’s show—and the stat that 72% of country record buyers are women—hence the presence of Matthew McConaughey and Josh Duhamel among other hunky non-musicians chosen as presenters.
The show opened with a fiery run-through of a 40-year-old Creedence Clearwater Revival rock hit, “Travelin’ Band,” sung by Underwood and Lambert, who were soon joined by the song’s composer, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member John Fogerty, and country’s demon fiddler, Charlie Daniels.
Among the show’s other highlights, singer-songwriter-guitarist Brad Paisley took a dunk in a mid-arena pool at the end of his performance of his song “Water,” which was immediately followed by the wisecracking Paisley being crowned, still dripping wet, as the ACM’s top male vocalist.
Lambert gave a moving reading of her reflective autobiographical song “The House That Built Me,” bypassing the pyrotechnics and hell-on-wheels personality that’s characterized many of her TV performances.
Swift soared above the audience on a suspended platform for her featured number, “Change,” from her blockbuster album “Fearless.” Stepping off the platform once it touched down again amid the seats, she ripped off the flowing white gown she had on to reveal a black body-hugging ensemble better suited for her to stride through the crowd to the stage, trailed by several dozen fans. After leading a choir in the inspirational rock-gospel anthem, holding one climactic note for a good 15 seconds, she fell backward into the crowd, Peter Gabriel style, to be carried off and set down.
It was a dramatic statement of possibility from a young artist who, despite her extraordinary accomplishments, is still expanding on those possibilities. It also quickly erased the memory of her sketchy performance on the Grammy Awards that prompted much grousing from detractors.
Toby Keith saluted his friend, NBA star turned jazz bassist Wayman Tisdale, who last year lost his fight against cancer, in “Cryin’ For Me (Wayman’s Song).” The segment was pegged to the ACM’s philanthropic campaign called ACM Lifting Lives.
Duo Montgomery Gentry was given this year’s humanitarian award for their charity efforts. The Zac Brown Band, one of eight entertainer of the year nominees in a field expanded this year a la the Oscars’ broadening of the best picture field, drew cheers from thousands of fans who filled the MGM Grand’s Garden Arena during the group’s taped performance on its current USO trip to entertain troops in the Middle East.
Reba McEntire hosted for the 12th year.
Photo: Charles Kelley, left, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood of the band Lady Antebellum perform at the ACM show. Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press