The 2023 ACM Awards got a new venue but said the same old things

58th Academy of Country Music Awards – Show – Credit: Rich Polk/Penske Media

Well that was something. The 2023 ACM Awards ended on a Texas low: Dolly Parton premiered the new song “World on Fire” from her upcoming rock project, and not only showered the audience with confetti, but with a sense of impending doom as dancing swirled around them .

“What do we do when everything burns down?” She sang, accompanied by a pound-clap rhythm straight out of Shania Twain’s late ’90s. It sounded kind of haunting at first, but then she also sang vague things like “When did we lose in God we trust,” “Don’t get me started on politics,” and “Now tell me what’s truth?” Though the song sung by a legitimate legend who rarely missteps, it seemed unclear what it was actually trying to say. Unfortunately, the same can be said of many of this year’s ACMs — especially if the show actually had a chance to say something new.

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It was a new location, the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas, and the ACMs are still relatively new to the streaming space after migrating from network television in 2022. That could have been an advantage. But a lot of what happened felt like we’d been here before. Keith Urban opened the show with a song called “Texas Time,” which actually appeared on his 2018 album Graffiti U. Cole Swindell and Jo Dee Messina, who wowed audiences at November’s CMA Awards, did the same for “She Had Me.” at Heads Carolina” – a song derived from Messina’s 1996 hit. Ashley McBryde and her Lindeville friends performed “Bonfire at Tina’s,” which is undeniably great, but still felt a little too similar to her same-crew performance of a Linda Ronstadt hit at the CMAs. (Though one benefit of the ACMs as a streamed show is being able to hear McBryde say “shit” and “bitches” without being paged.)

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Early on in the show, Parton joked about a threesome with co-host Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, certainly a country awards show first, but that sharp tone couldn’t be sustained. Yearwood, one of the greatest singers of this genre or any other genre, was given an understated three-song medley in Carly Pearce that never really got a chance to unfold. Some people, like Morgan Wallen, who was sidelined for six weeks with a voice problem, and Carrie Underwood were nowhere to be seen. In a little tongue-in-cheek twist, Wallen ended up being named Male Singer of the Year. “To tell the truth, we all know what it takes to win this award,” Brooks said. “Being here not to have it has to kill him, so let’s all celebrate for Morgan Wallen.”

The show’s two-hour run made for a refreshingly fast pace, but there were still some obviously time-wasting moments backstage as Bobby Bones interviewed the nominees and Brooks gave awkward post-performance interviews. But when it came time to remember those who had died since the last ACMs, giants like Naomi Judd and Loretta Lynn, there was only a brief “We remember you” banter and an admittedly exquisite a cappella Hymn by Parton.

However, let’s talk about the good things. Miranda Lambert sang her beautiful, haunting “Carousel.” Cody Johnson sounded great singing a Willie Nelson classic. And Ed Sheeran and Luke Combs were convincing duet partners on Sheeran’s “Life Goes On.” (They even released a studio version after the show.)

And to top it off, Lainey Wilson had a great night and won Album of the Year and Singer of the Year for making music that’s fun and really fun. “I’m up here for all of you, for people like Dolly Parton who are paving the way,” Wilson said in one of her acceptance speeches. “It’s hard work for the little girls who see this. If you wanna be a dreamer, you better be a doer.” One of Wilson’s early singles was WWDD, which stands for What Would Dolly Do.

Wilson also briefly dropped her aw-shucks routine and performed “Grease,” a country-funk banger that’s easily the best (and possibly only) contemporary country song that’s about blatant horniness.

Wilson was one of several welcome new (or relatively new) faces on the program. The War and Treaty couple smashed audiences (as did Dierks Bentley in 2021) with a blistering performance that went from intimate to massive in three minutes. Were you ready for the moment? You better believe There were also big moments for Bailey Zimmerman and newly certified stars Hardy and Jelly Roll.

Unlike April’s CMT Awards, which squarely addressed some big issues like the Nashville Covenant School shooting and several states’ tow-limiting legislation, the ACMs stayed away from the hottest buttons. The Allen, Texas, mall shooting, one of two grisly mass shootings in Texas last week, was a short drive from the awards ceremony site, but the only recognition of the event came from Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey during her acceptance speech to the group year in which he said he wanted to comfort people who were hurt.

And so the cycle completed, a big backslapping party where we could move on as if what’s happening here in the real world wasn’t a complete nightmare. Country music prides itself on honesty and genuineness, not to mention its direct ability to say something important, and those qualities can still be found in the music. It’s just a shame that the 2023 ACMs are so close for both.

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