Reporter's Notebook: Offstage at the Academy of Country Music Awards
Miranda Lambert scored twice at Sunday night's Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, winning album of the year for "Revolution" and being named top female vocalist. If she seemed especially flabbergasted by the vocalist win, it wasn't an act.
When I spoke with her last year just before "Revolution" was released, she spoke with great pride about the strides she'd taken in her songwriting. Yet she had trouble mustering much confidence in talking about her singing -- something that left her boyfriend, singer-songwriter Blake Shelton, shaking his head in disbelief and chiding her for not owning up to that facet of her talent when he joined in on the interview.
But she's starting to get the message. After the show, as she, Shelton and a few close friends and family members celebrated both of their wins -- Shelton took the trophy for vocal event for his "Hillbilly Bone" duet with Trace Adkins -- I commented on the choice of the ballad "The House That Built Me" for her ACM spotlight performance rather than one of her signature upbeat numbers bursting with take-no-prisoners attitude.
"This time, I just wanted to stand there and sing," Lambert said. And sing she did, in what was one of the standout performances among the two dozen songs over the course of the three-hour ceremony.
In covering performance-driven awards shows, it’s not always possible to compare the live event against what millions of viewers experience watching on TV. But because the ACM Awards were broadcast live to the East Coast and tape-delayed for viewers in the Pacific time zone, I was able to tune into the telecast as I wrote up my report on the show I'd just taken in at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
It was a striking example of how difficult it is to funnel live music in a sports arena through a TV set. Much that looked and sounded musically full-bodied in person turned flat and anemic. Even the full-throttle vocals of Carrie Underwood sounded weak over the little speaker on the set in my hotel room.
Taylor Swift’s delivery of "Change" from her "Fearless" album, backed by a youth choir from San Diego she'd invited along for the ride, was as electric a moment in a concert hall as I've seen in some time, but much of that electricity dissipated in the broadcast.
Back in the days before digital music and audiophile surround-sound home theater systems, bands and their producers used to mix their recordings not to optimize the sound quality for state-of-the-art recording studio sound systems, but so they would sound their best over the tinny little 2-inch speakers of portable AM radios.
Maybe it’s time to go back to the future.
For the hardcore country fans who trek to Las Vegas to take in the ACM Awards show live, the big attraction after the award ceremony itself is the post-show all-star jam session in the MGM’s conference center adjacent to the Garden Arena.
That’s where the night’s participants -- and many who didn’t take part in the show itself -- pop onstage and sing a song or two, sometimes in unexpected parings, or with songs they wouldn’t normally sing on tour or on TV.
When I arrived, John Rich offered up his solo hit "Shuttin' Detroit Down" and his Big & Rich (minus Big Kenny) standard "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)." Then he called out another member of Nashville's Muzik Mafia, Gretchen Wilson, who got the versatile house band backing all the performers to power through a spot-on run-through of Heart’s predatory "Barracuda," followed by a remarkable channeling of Etta James-Janis Joplin blues power as she bravely took on Aretha Franklin's "I've Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)."
Deeper into the evening, James Otto gave a heartfelt message of support to military troops with his version of the song he wrote with Jamey Johnson and Lee Thomas Miller, "In Color." Later still, Jack Ingram appeared to have been partying hard before climbing onstage for a heavy-lidded encore reading of "Barbie Doll," which he’d sung during the show with Dierks Bentley.
It's a song that appears to be one he could do in his sleep, and almost did.
The ACM new vocal duo winner, Joey + Rory, closed the jam with an unaided presentation of their breakthrough hit "Cheater Cheater" and concluded with "This One’s for You," a new song Rory Fink said he's recently written with Zac Brown while opening for Brown's band on tour. It was a fitting benediction for the freewheeling blowout.
You know the old gag about Chicago politicians encouraging their supporters to vote early and often? It came to mind regarding the fan-voting aspect of the ACM Awards. Throughout the three-hour telecast, viewers were encouraged to log on and have their voices heard on several aspects of the show, from selecting one of three songs that Brooks and Dunn would sing in what was billed as their final ACM show performance as duo, to the top new artist and entertainer of the year choices.
But the show was broadcast live to the East Coast, and tape-delayed for West Coast viewing in prime time. So by the time anyone in the Pacific time zone tuned in to watch Lambert and Carrie Underwood kick the evening off with a blazing rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival's 1970 hit "Travelin' Band" -- for which they were joined by CCR's singer, songwriter and lead guitarist, John Fogerty, fiddler Charlie Daniels and Brad Paisley -- Luke Bryan had given his acceptance speech after being named top new artist, Brooks and Dunn were done singing the fan-voted "My Maria" and Underwood had thanked her lord and savior Jesus Christ upon being crowned entertainer of the year.
We're told the ACM process doesn't allow for multiple votes from individual fans. But West Coast country music enthusiasts who want their votes to count should make sure they cast their ACM ballots well before show time.
-- Randy Lewis
Photos, from top: Miranda Lambert sings during the ACM Awards; Taylor Swift delivers a highlight; credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press. John Rich and Gretchen Wilson arrive for the ACMs; credit: Dan Steinberg / Associated Press. John Fogerty, left, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley and Charlie Daniels perform; credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press.