The American Country Countdown Awards, held last night in Los Angeles, will forever be faced with the challenge of validating its existence. After all, there is no shortage of country-music awards shows and these carry the least weight in the genre’s trophy derby. Fortunately for the ACCAs, the telecast boasted more high points (like Carrie Underwood’s all-class performance and acceptance speech) than low. Here’s the 10 best and worst things we witnessed.
Best Step Forward: The Opening Number
Kudos to the ACCAs for not ignoring the very real fallout of “Tomatogate” in 2015 (a year in which there were no ACCAs, mind you). A quick recap: Radio consultant Keith Hill made the observation that based on tons of data, the way to boost a station’s ratings was to limit how many female artists are played, referring to them as the “tomatoes” of the broader country-music salad. This obviously sucks on a few levels. But since the ACCAs are essentially the “country radio awards” — winners are based mostly on radio play and sales — it was commendable of them to start the show off with a trio of women: Jennifer Nettles, Cam and Martina McBride belting out McBride’s “This One’s for the Girls.” Their harmonious and on-the-nose performance isn’t going to change any trends on the dial overnight, but it did show that the country radio isn’t completely tone deaf.
Best Country Song: Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man”
This really shouldn’t be something to get excited about at a country awards show, but Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man” is one supremely country song. And the fact that it keeps winning Song of the Year honors bodes well for the genre. “Die a Happy Man” triumphed at last month’s ACM Awards as well, and it’s starting to feel like a lock for November’s CMA Awards, too. It’s sweet and sentimental, but also masculine in its own way. Concise and traditional in approach but strong in the melody department, it’s a nearly perfect example of why true country music will withstand the gusting winds of disco and EDM influence — because you can’t automate authenticity. TR performed the song just before accepting his trophy, and even with a quiet, free-from-distractions (and somewhat low-effort) presentation, the song is clearly a work of art.
Worst Trend: Bro Country Goes Soft Rock
Last time we checked, it was pretty rare to find a piano at a keg party. But that didn’t stop Breakthrough Male of the Year winner Sam Hunt from tickling the ivories on “Make You Miss Me,” or former ACCAs hosts Florida Georgia Line from trotting out the Backstreet Boys-esque torch ballad “H.O.L.Y.” on Sunday night. Elsewhere, Cole Swindell cued a galaxy of cellphone lights while singing his maudlin slow jam “You Should Be Here,” and Dan + Shay went swoon-core with their blue-eyed R&B-tinged “From the Ground Up.” Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley’s attempts at prom-king crooning are enough to make even FGL’s most fervent detractors long for the days when they cruised and rolled through awards show performances. And Hunt’s wooden “Make You Miss Me” had us wishing he had saved his Stagecoach special guests Snoop Dogg, G-Eazy and Bebe Rexha for the ACCAs. While this new kinder, gentler bro-country may have not yet drifted into yacht-rock waters, it’s clearly gone soft.
Best Brevity: A Two-Hour Runtime
If there’s one thing the ACCAs understand that the CMAs, ACMs and even the Grammys don’t, it’s that award shows needn’t be as long as The Godfather. With only eight awards to give out during the telecast, and by marrying the acceptance speeches with the winners’ performances — Luke Bryan, for instance, breathlessly said “thank you” after roaring through new single “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day” — the brisk show was over in time for fans in TV land to catch new episodes of Dateline NBC and Intervention. An impressive feat considering that the actual American Country Countdown with Kix Brooks radio show clocks in at four hours every week.
Best One-Man-Band: Chris Janson
We’ve heard Chris Janson’s breakout single “Buy Me a Boat” so many times, the dream-big anthem was in danger of taking on water — and even Janson himself knew it. So instead of turning in one more traditional performance of the radio hit on national TV, the singer-songwriter stripped the song down to its bare essentials and showed off his musical versatility while he was at. The Missouri native, who can already give a master class in how to command a stage, said to hell with a band and backed himself up: playing guitar, harmonica and kick-drum all at the same time. On a show of often overly rehearsed productions, Janson played like an actual musician, placing spontaneity and a devil-may-care attitude front and center.
Worst Buzzkill: Knowing the Winners
Of all the predictable shows in the saturated music awards market, the ACCAs took the cake: Even the winners knew they won. Oftentimes, the victor’s name wasn’t included in the list of nominees, with the presenters instead revealing the champ as they tossed to the live performance: “And the winner is . . . Kelsea Ballerini!” While the music may be the biggest audience draw, the winners’ — and especially the losers’ — reactions are our awards-show guilty pleasures. Where are all the pageant-worthy smiles when someone loses to Miranda Lambert, or the Taylor Swift surprise-face disciples who spent all day practicing astonishment in front of a mirror? Plus, with rehearsed acceptance speeches, there are no tears, no awkward babbling, no bleeped swear words. When it comes to its winner revelations, the ACCAs were one big buzzkill, before even catching a buzz.
Best Class Act: Carrie Underwood
Stop the presses: The best female vocalist in country music actually won the award for Female Vocalist of the Year. She’d never say it, of course, but Carrie Underwood has been getting the shaft at awards shows for years, often getting overlooked in favor of Miranda Lambert and her irresistibly sassy ways. That’s not to knock Lambert’s talent — she’s earned every one of her awards — but it was nice to see Underwood get the win. She then proceeded to show exactly how deserving of the honor she was, testifying like a one-woman choir on her new single “Church Bells.” But as soon as she slipped back down to earth, Underwood focused again on the heavens, offering a heartfelt shout-out to Isley Thibodeaux, a 10-year-old fan who was killed in a car accident returning home from one of the singer’s recent concerts. Talk about knowing what really matters in life.
Worst Variety: Same Ol’ Song and Dance
The ACCAs took place less than a month after this year’s ACMs, and there was more than a little bit of overlap. In fact, it was pretty much the same lineup of stars, and pretty much the same playlist, too. Sam Hunt’s “Make You Miss Me,” Cole Swindell’s “You Should Be Here,” Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man” — all of this just happened in Vegas. Hell, Luke Bryan even kicked off both shows with “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Everyday.” He and his band delivered the exact same performance, right down to the shoulder-to-shoulder, guitar-chopping finish. There also seemed to be a lot more energy at the ACMs, with a lot more going on onstage. Granted, the ACMs have a way bigger budget, but all fans got last night were some laser lights, smoke machines and run-of-the-mill video screens. Yee-haw? More like, ho-hum.
Worst Nepotism: Brooks & Dunn’s NASH Icon Award
Not since Taylor Swift won BMI’s first-ever Taylor Swift Award has an accolade so completely boggled the mind. How did Brooks & Dunn win the ACCA’s NASH Icon Award? Not to suggest the 30-million-album-selling duo — who reunited last year — isn’t deserving, but given Kix Brooks’ 10-year distinction as host of the American Country Countdown With Kix Brooks radio show, one can’t help but wonder if he didn’t have a slight advantage here. “This is beyond humbling, it’s almost embarrassing,” Brooks said in his acceptance speech. He concurred with bandmate Ronnie Dunn, who joked that tomorrow he’d wake up in a whiskey haze, saying to himself, “You ain’t no Johnny Cash, no George Jones, no Merle Haggard. You got a long way to go, skinny boy with a record deal.” While Cash, Possum and the Hag have still yet to posthumously win any NASH Icon trophies, Brooks & Dunn celebrated their own resurrection with a spirited performance of their 2003 single “Red Dirt Road.”
Best Spotlight Stealers: New Artists
With two dazzling performance slots in the first 30 minutes, country newcomer Cam was to the ACCAs what superstar household name Blake Shelton was to April’s ACMs. Here, we give credit to the ACCA producers for shining much of its spotlight on new talent — a big step in differentiating this show from its country music counterparts. Dan + Shay got to strut their harmonizing stuff for an entire song, instead of the new-artist norm of one verse/one chorus, while Google searches for Chase Bryant and Michael Ray likely increased a zillion percent after their presenting slots. And, sure, maybe the bigger stars were 140 miles inland at Stagecoach — or on their tour buses watching Game of Thrones — but seeing fresh faces on a country awards show alongside the Carries and Lukes of the genre was (we hope) reflective of what this show is all about: country radio’s past, present and, most importantly, future.