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Grading the ACMs: Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Miranda Lambert and more. Who got an A?

April 5, 2009 |  5:12 pm


Pop & Hiss brought you insta-reviews of all the ACM live performances, typos and all.

1. Brooks & Dunn & Taylor Swift & Sugarland & Carrie Underwood & Rascal Flatts. Here's one for those with short attention spans. Nearly everything the ACMs have to offer in a tidy little seven minutes! Host/country royalty Reba McEntire introduces the show by informing us that duo Brooks & Dunn is one of the most acclaimed acts in the history of the awards, but what follows isn't their time to shine. Instead, Brooks & Dunn become the anchor for whizz-bang medley. Swift rocked out with "Picture to Burn," looking more assured than ever. Underwood showed off her near-perfect vocals with a brief turn at "All-American Girl," Sugarland was delightfully poppy and Rascal Flatts represented some country good ol' boys. "That's what I call a stimulus package," McEntire said. We'd rather have cash, but it was a solid opening. B+

2. Kenny Chesney's "Out Last Night." The lead single from his upcoming greatest hits package is a pleasant enough up-tempo rocker, representing immediately how country award shows are different from the Grammys. Less than 15 minutes in, and we have an ode to being drunk. Rather than approach anything dangerous or reckless, Chesney spins this tale of hangin' at the local bar into a neat little slice of nostalgia. B.

3. Heidi Newfield's "Johnny and June." Standing in the center of a little circular fire moat, former Trick Pony singer Newfield tried to bring a bit of a rebellious edge to her her ode to Johnny and June Carter Cash. She handled the elements better than Swift last year, when the artist was dumped with water, and did her best to turn the cut into an arm-raiser. But standing around some fire doesn't necessarily bring any to the song. B-

4. Toby Keith's "God Love Her." Hey kids, you can be a little rock 'n' roll devil and ride your motorcycle, but that doesn't mean you're allowed to forgo your Bible studies. Keith's recent country hit was bar-band fun, accentuated here with a little horn section. Huey Lewis and  the News with a slide guitar. C+

5. Jamey Johnson's "In Color." The first ballad of the night comes from newcomer-ish Johnson. The cut has already won song of the year, and it's not. Performing largely in black-and-white here, this one is aimed straight for your heart. Isn't it sweet how he inspires us to reminisce about our grandmother and high school teacher? No. Skip the song and look through your photo album: C-

6. George Strait's "Troubadour." Enough. No more songs about looking back and remembering when you were young and raising hell and hanging out with tough-as-heck women. Strait suffers here because the show is one hour old, and this is already the fifth song about how good things used to be way back when. Nashville, no wonder why Swift is your biggest star right now. She stands out because she doesn't yet have a past to sing sappy songs about. What saves Strait here is that he understands his mortality and place in the world. B-

7. Taylor Swift's "You're Not Sorry." OK, so the performance hasn't even started, and we have to deduct an automatic half point here because Swift was introduced to the stage via a David Copperfield magic trick and Pop & Hiss is strictly anti-illusionists. Nothing really country about this tune, as this is pure ol'-fashioned power ballad. Swift doesn't have the strongest voice, and she's better rocking out than singing at a piano. A backing string section, however, kicks in to save her from having to hit any high notes. After the performance, Swift gets an award for selling lots of records. At first, it seemed like an impromptu little thing, but Swift had an acceptance speech at the ready. C. (But if there had been no magic: C+)

8. Lady Antebellum's "I Run to You." The first song of the night that comes close to a current-events reference, with this Grammy-nominated country trio singing about the power of love no matter how crazy this mixed up world gets. It's a perfectly acceptable, perfectly forgettable mid-tempo tune. C-

9. LeeAnn Womack's "Solitary Thinking." The most distinctive performance of the night thus far. Looking elegant in a slightly sparkly black dress, Womack was understated, and a little bit devious -- there's moving on, and then there's whiskey. With a slight keyboard burn in the background, Womack brought a little blues chic to "Solitary Thinking" and she wore it well. A

10. Keith Urban's "Kiss a Girl." One gets the impression that Urban could write this kind of silly mid-tempo rocker in his sleep. The cameras cut to wife Nicole Kidman, and she seems to be digging it. If Pop & Hiss were married to her, we'd probably be writing these super optimistic upbeat anthems too. C-

11. Miranda Lambert's "Dead Flowers." And that should be a wrap, folks. Introduced with a  decadently booming rhythm, Lambert's "Dead Flowers" is a study in tension. A sly guitar riff flirts with exploding, but that relief never comes. Lambert's tale of brokenhearted spite ("I'm driving through a hurricane, and all he can say is what a nice day," she snarls) is all about maintaining composure, even when you're nowhere near it. And that's an A.

12. John Rich's "Shutting Detroit Down." Now things are getting topical. The sometimes controversial singer has come a long way from 2008's buffoon of an anthem "Raisin' McCain." There's a lot to like in "Shutting Detroit Down," which takes a mess of an economic situation and simplifies it into a working class anthem. But it gets a little too simple, and errs with its anti-New York sentiments. The recession crosses state lines. B-

13. Miley Cyrus' "The Climb." Would have been a little better if Papa Cyrus hadn't introduced Miley's Nashville bid with a flurry of release dates for "Hannah Montana" and Billy Ray products. Nevertheless, "The Climb" is an A-list ballad, and Miley's wise-beyond-her-years' rasp goes a long way in selling this tale of determination. She seemed to sing it a bit careful, striving to hit her notes rather than go all out, but a massive string section landed at just the right moment. B

14. Carrie Underwood's red lava colored dress and "I Told You So." This dress was big news. Reports from the rehearsals had the press sworn to secrecy on it, and Underwood herself was quoted as saying it was like "lava." It even got teased on the commercial break. All this attention meant the dress was at risk of overshadowing the song, which is a shame, since Underwood showed off her vocal prowess with her take on the Randy Travis ballad -- although she emphasized the heartache rather than the nuance. As for the dress, the thing was spread across half the stage, and the scarlet-colored outfit could have housed an entire band in its train. It's tough to buy despair from a girl with an outfit this grandiose. B-

15. Reba McEntire's "Strange." Nothing wrong with Reba's new single -- a classy upbeat rocker, driving by a snappy little banjo kick. The song gets its official release after the show. B

16. Trace Adkins' "Till the Last Shot's Fired." This one is probably a bit review proof. Performing in  front of black-and-white images of wars past, Adkins was the grand orator, but didn't over-sell the charity anthem. Things get a little ghastly, as Adkins dons the role of a dead solider in the song's final verse, but the West Point Glee Club added the requisite haunting vocals. B+

17. Sugarland's "What I'd Give." Hopefully, the kids who turned in for Miley and Taylor have gone off to bed, as Sugarland brings things into a little more adult area here. "A tangled lace of arms and legs," Jennifer Nettles sings, swaying and grooving for the camera. The plucky slow-dance strings and fluttering hand-driven rhythms probably work a little better with candlelight, as this background mood music. C+

18. Blake Shelton's "She Wouldn't Be Gone." Acoustic and minimalist, but far from light, Shelton brings his voice to a growl, and muscles through a seemingly simple take on regret. B-

19. Rascal Flatts' "Here Comes Goodbye." Hey, who turned off the country awards and turned on this 1988 high school prom? Oh, never mind, that's just Rascal Flatts, arriving with an energy-killing piano ballad. This one comes with a wanky, over-the-top guitar solo that arrives in the final moments, and dumps a bunch of emotionless, show-off notes all over the place.  Was going to give it an F, but then it looked like singer Gary LeVox had tears in his eyes, so D.

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Associated Press