Shelton continues rise at ACM Awards

He sang of giving what he had just received.

The vehicle: a mashed-potatoes-mushy hit that encapsulated the prevailing sentiment of the evening.

"I’ve got so much love," Blake Shelton purred like Cupid’s arrow was imbedded in his backside, singing with Lionel Richie on the R&B singer’s soul lite bearhug "You Are," which appears on Richie’s new country duets album "Tuskegee."

The performance ended the 47th annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden on Sunday, where Shelton was named male vocalist of the year, one of the top honors of the night.

"Man, I don’t know what the hell to say," he stammered upon winning, seeming genuinely surprised by the award, not that he should have been.

Shelton, who also co-hosted the show for the second year in a row with Reba McEntire, has seen his profile blossom in the past year thanks to his stint as a vocal coach on the NBC reality talent show "The Voice," a No. 1 record, "Red River Blue," his first to debut atop the "Billboard" album chart and a Super Bowl appearance with his wife, fellow country music spark plug Miranda Lambert, who also had a memorable night winning for album of the year and female vocalist of the year.

The biggest ACM nod went to Taylor Swift, who won her second consecutive entertainer of the year award.

Mostly though, the ACMs continued Shelton’s ascension into one of country’s most identifiable faces.

He’s a good ambassador for Nashville, a honky tonk centrist: Handsome, yet approachable, charismatic, yet self-effacing, mildly rowdy, with more than a few songs about drinking, yet those are outnumbered by tunes that reference his faith in some way or another.

This balance between piety and partying, which Shelton embodies, is the fulcrum on which country music has long pivoted, and seldom is this more apparent than at the ACMs.

There was plenty of boozy fun: the relentlessly high-energy Chris Young urging the audience to "Save Water, Drink Beer" (But isn’t beer like 90 percent water? Oh, never mind); Toby Keith performing singalong hangover catalyst "Red Solo Cup" while walking through the crowd with comedian Carrot Top, who placed said drinking utensils on Keith’s nipples.

This was contrasted with more somber moments, like Keith Urban igniting some guitar fireworks on the fallen soldier remembrance "For You" and co-ed vocal quartet Little Big Town performing a stark, stirring a cappella rendition of John Lennon’s "Imagine," which they turned into a medley with Hunter Hayes’ "Here’s Hope," complete with a children’s choir and string section.

There were a number of acts who embraced country traditionalism in sentiment if not sound, like Jason Aldean, one of the few performers in a cowboy hat, who testified to the merits of small town living on "Fly Over States" and earned a pair of awards for single record of the year and vocal event of the year.

In a similar vein, the baby-faced, man-voiced Scotty McCreery, who won for best new artist, echoed Aldean’s rural affection on "Water Tower Town," while the linebacker-sized Brantley Gilbert noted the omnipresence of the kind of music he trades in on "Country Must Be Country Wide."

But for all of country’s pervasiveness, it’s become less a sound than an identity, and an increasingly diffuse one at that.

Take the Zac Brown Band, for instance, whose "Keep it in Mind" was driven by lush multipart harmonies delivered in a breezy, sunbaked lilt that sounded as if they should be coming from a band in ugly Hawaiian shirts with bare feet instead of scruffy looking dudes in jeans and boots.

What do they have in common with, say, Rascal Flatts, a pop band with a mild twang who performed their song "Banjo" with Steve Martin on the tune’s namesake instrument?

Or such soft-scrubbed acts as Lady Antebellum, who were named vocal group of the year, and the Eli Young Band, who scored song of the year honors?

Not much, and perhaps this goes a long way in explaining country’s consistently growing popularity: it’s come to encompass a little bit of everything, from hard rock to hip-hop to most points in between.

Even the award presenters reflected as much, ranging from Ashton Kutcher to LL Cool J to KISS.

Despite all this cross-pollination, some of the evening’s best moments were also its most vintage feeling, like Brad Paisley’s furious guitar picking on "Camouflage," a song about the joys of sporting the kind of garb one associates with duck hunting.

Not that it need be confined there, according to Paisley.

"You can blend in, in the country," he sang of the green, brown and tan fabric. "You can stand out in the fashion world."

Blending in and standing out simultaneously.

Sounds like country.

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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