Singing into a sparkly microphone that looked as if was carved from a disco ball, Miranda Lambert gave voice to Nashville’s defining duality: romanticizing the past in songs whose sound bears few connections to said past.
“It all just seemed so good the way we had it,” Lambert sang during “Automatic,” clad in jeans, working the stage with the easy confidence of a runway model on a laundry day. “Back before everything became automatic.”
Memories also loomed large in songs performed by Eric Church, Lee Brice and others at the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday at the MGM Grand Garden.
Even those acts who represented the clearest break from country music orthodoxy still venerated their elders.
“The mix tape’s got a little Hank, little Drake,” punchy duo Florida Georgia Line sang during “This Is How We Roll,” as BMX bikers performed aerial feats behind them and plumes of flame shot up from the stage at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, where artists also played.
This was the prevailing sentiment of the evening: tipping your Stetson to where you came from while heading in a different direction entirely.
Country music may be synonymous with tradition, but to its credit, its constantly redefining what that tradition connotes.
And so this year the ACMs were a mix of forward-looking flash tempered with a touch of nostalgia.
Supplying the former was The Band Perry, who opened the show with fiery, Judds-meets-Led-Zeppelin kiss off “Chainsaw,” which was punctuated by bursts of confetti that coated the hair of everyone sitting down front, making it look as if they just taken shelter from a snowstorm.
“We made a mess!” singer Kimberly Perry exclaimed in the press room later in the night after winning for vocal group of the year.
At the other end of the spectrum was a stirring tribute to Merle Haggard, where George Strait and Lambert teamed up on Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down.”
“Merle was huge in my career,” Strait said afterward, recalling the first time he saw Haggard while stationed in Hawaii during his three-year tenure in the military. “That’s what I wanted to be like. I wanted to be like The Hag.”
Both Strait and Lambert were among the night’s big winners, he for entertainer of the year, she for female vocalist of the year for the second year in a row as well as single record of the year for “Mama’s Broken Heart.”
Another repeat winner was Jason Aldean, who again was named male vocalist of the year.
Perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise was Kacey Musgraves winning album of the year. Musgraves also won the Grammy this year for best country album but had little presence at the ACMs and was not featured in any of the show’s 25 performances.
Per usual, those performances were marked by numerous collaborations.
Lady Antebellum teamed up with Stevie Nicks on a smaller stage in the back of the arena, first highlighting the vocal harmonies of the former’s “Golden” with only acoustic guitar accompaniment. Then the backing band on the main stage kicked in and they punched up Nicks’ “Rihannon,” with Lady Antebellum singer Hillary Scott trading verses with Nicks.
Sheryl Crow joined Dierks Bentley on his “I Hold On,” while Blake Shelton duetted with Shakira on her new song “Medicine” — she in a red dress and thigh-high black boots, he looming over her like a linebacker confronting a canary.
What made it country?
Well, aside from Shelton’s presence, there was lapsteel moaning faintly in the background.
Shelton and fellow singer Luke Bryan were charged with hosting the show for the second consecutive year.
Bryan played the straight guy — though “played” might be a stretch, the guy naturally exudes all the edge of a Bible camp counselor. He’s like a country Ned Flanders, but with far shiner teeth.
For his part, Shelton was the winking cad, chuckling at his own jokes, making sport of the competition.
“If you don’t like live music, then you need to go down the block and hear Britney Spears,” he said at the outset of the show.
Bryan’s sport coat was white, Shelton’s was black, as if to call further attention to the differences between the two.
Speaking of odd fits, there was Brad Paisley performing the feel-good, be-happy-what-you’ve-got honky tonk of “River Bed” at one of the MGM Grand pools, seriously over-dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt amidst gyrating women in bikinis and shirtless dudes with tattooed shoulders.
Much more convincing was Lee Brice’s rendition of “I Drive Your Truck,” which won for song of the year.
Brice performed the song, which is about struggling with the death of a loved one, seated alone at the foot the of the stage, armed with just his voice and an acoustic guitar — and that’s all he needed.
“I’m the tough guy, a big guy, but I’ve got a soft heart,” Brice said following his win.
Similarly unadorned, at least at first, was Eric Church’s “Give Me Back My Hometown,” which began on a low simmer, with Church singing faintly while strumming an acoustic guitar, before boiling over with emotion by song’s end, his voice supplying the heat.
“Hometown” is about attempting to break from the past, which the ACMs will be doing, soon enough.
In 2015, the ACMs will leave Vegas, at least for a year, and celebrate their 50th anniversary in Arlington, Texas, at AT&T Stadium, home to the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made an appearance at the event, his presence greeted with some lusty booing.
“We don’t have to create country music atmosphere in Texas,” he said after the show, referencing the music’s roots in the state.
Maybe not, but considering where country music is at these days, at its cosmopolitan peak, Vegas seems like a better fit for the ACMs.
So, you know, boo!
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at email@example.com or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.