Since the winners have been long announced, the ACM Honors is an annual awards show that’s usually devoid of suspense. But not this year with emcee Jon Pardi in charge.
Over the course of the event, on Wednesday at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the “Dirt on My Boots” singer kept the audience guessing at what he’d do next, whether it was bobbling a word (re: that unexplained pause between syllables that turned guitarist Lindsay Ell into a “bad-ass guitar”), arbitrarily calling out audience members (“Dierks! How’m I doing? … You’re kinda staring at me weird”), or mangling a Keith Urban imitation. (“That,” he had to add, “was a horrible Australian accent.” Oh my. Yes, it was.)
By show’s end, the delightfully kooky performance had become a running joke, charming the industry crowd but no doubt leaving co-host Lauren Alaina a little frazzled.
“Help me, Jesus!” the current ACM new female artist exclaimed after Pardi came in late on a cue, forcing her to read his teleprompter lines.
Pardi also ably reminded the crowd why he was named 2017’s ACM new male artist of the year with one of the standout performances of the evening: Accompanied only by his own blazing guitar, he turned in a soaring tribute to award recipient Dierks Bentley with Bentley’s 2014 hit “I Hold On.”
“Thank you for honoring me with that song,” Bentley told Pardi as he accepted the Merle Haggard Spirit Award, drolly adding: “Stick to singing, by the way.”
Bentley was saluted for a lengthy and trend-setting career that has embodied the spirit of country legend Haggard. It was one of a host of special awards, announced earlier this summer, that offers special recognition to artists, songwriters, and industry leaders.
The two-and-half-hour show was packed with one-of-a-kind performances, passionate testimonies and touching acceptance speeches. And with Pardi’s and Alaina’s endearing personalities and without the glossy production values of a televised special, it took on an intimate, down-home country atmosphere.
Cam and Joe Diffie both reminded the crowd of country’s soulful roots with stellar performances of two standards. Cam torched her way through Buck Owens’ “Crying Time” to honor ACM co-founders Eddie Miller and Mickey and Chris Christensen. And Diffie channeled George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” to honor the late songwriter Norro Wilson.
Kassi Ashton was an audio-visual wonder, lustily singing the masculine lyrics of “Body Like a Back Road,” a tribute to Sam Hunt’s 2017 uber-hit. She came dressed in a confection of iridescent pink slacks and full-length duster coat. Don’t doubt Ashton’s country bona fides: She revealed before the show that she’d made the outfit herself on her own Singer sewing machine.
The usually hirsute Hunt showed up to accept the Gene Weed Milestone Award with short stubble and shaved head; he made sure to thank “Back Road” co-writers Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Zach Crowell “who have just been killing it the past few years.”
Morgan Evans, who’s celebrating his first No. 1 this week with “Kiss Somebody,” gave one of the most original and stirring performances with “Things That We Drink To.” He co-wrote the song in memory of his former manager Robb Potts, who received the ACM’s Jim Reeves International Award. Potts, an Australian concert promoter who championed country music, was killed last year in a motorcycle accident in Tasmania.
Before the show, Evans explained that the song emerged out of a songwriting session with Chris DeStefano and Josh Osborne the day of Potts’ memorial service in Nashville. “There was nothing else on any of our minds,” said Morgan, who plans to put the song on his upcoming album. “We all knew him and we wrote this song about missing someone and losing someone.”
Americana string band Old Crow Medicine Show honored humanitarian award recipient Darius Rucker with a raucous rendition of “Wagon Wheel” — not-so-subtly reminding the sell-out crowd that, as its originators, they also own Rucker’s signature song.
Rucker embraced Old Crow frontman Ketch Secor before accepting his award from pal Kip Moore.
“I don’t do what I do for awards,” Rucker said in his acceptance. “I don’t do what I do for people to say ‘good job.’ I do it because my mom taught me when I was kid that if you can help anybody less fortunate than you, it’s what you’re supposed to do.”
In his acceptance speech, Songwriter of the Year Rhett Akins — now more famous as “Thomas Rhett‘s dad,” he granted before the show — captivated the audience with an “only in Nashville” story about his first trip to the city, in 1991, as a wannabe singer-songwriter from Valdosta, Georgia.
Akins recalled wandering into a Lower Broadway dive only to find one lonely performer singing to an empty room. The two struck up a conversation, and the singer invited Akins to share his stage.
“I got up there and played some terrible song that I wrote and he said, ‘Man, if you ever move to Nashville, I’ll give you my number,” Akins said. “He wrote his number on my card and it said, ‘615-whatever, Kenny Chesney.‘”
The crowd erupted at the superstar’s name.
“Kenny had nothing,” Akins added, “and here we are 27 years later … and I’m standing here holding this trophy, and Kenny Chesney is playing to 65,000 people and my son is on tour with Kenny Chesney right now.”
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The final trophy of the evening, the Cliffie Stone Icon Award, went to Country Music Hall of Fame member Alan Jackson (who presented the same award to Hall of Famer George Strait last year). Chris Stapleton did the musical-tribute honors with a bracing “Here in the Real World.”
Homebound with a respiratory ailment, Jackson sent his oldest daughter, Mattie Jackson Selecman, to accept the award — which she was happy to do, she explained, because “my dad … often is too humble to even speak like he should about himself.”
“Quite simply what he does and what he writes and what he shares with the world is actually a lot about living and a little about love,” Selecman said, quoting from Jackson’s 1992 hit “Chattahoochee.” “His heart has never changed. His writing has never wavered. and that’s why I’m standing here 30 years after his career began and we’re all celebrating him tonight.”