Luke Combs, Dan + Shay, Lady A and More Country Stars Are Celebrated at Emotion-Packed ACM Honors

The Ryman Auditorium event included memorable performances from a stellar lineup, including Ashley McBryde, Chris Janson, Alan Jackson, Ronnie Dunn, Keith Urban and newcomer Brittney Spencer

Dan + Shay
Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty

Everyone already knows the winners of the ACM Honors beforehand, but if there was a competition at the event's Wednesday night edition, it had to be: Which artist stole the show?

Was it Chris Janson tackling what is commonly considered the greatest country song of all time? Or newcomer Brittney Spencer reinterpreting another country classic in a way that no one could have imagined? Or perhaps it was Ashley McBryde singing her own anthem with more emotion than she ever had — as if that were humanly possible?

Of course, the real winners of this contest were the audience members who witnessed the performances, all delivered in celebration of special achievements in country music. Among the honorees were some of the genre's biggest names, including Luke Combs, Lady A, Dan + Shay, Rascal Flatts, Toby Keith, and the legendary Loretta Lynn.

Held at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the usually annual event didn't take place last year because of COVID-19, so there were almost double the awards to be handed out on Wednesday.

There also seemed to be double the emotion, not only because of the swirl of feelings stirred by the impact of the pandemic on live music but also because of a very specific loss: ACM senior vice president Lisa Lee, the show's longtime producer and a beloved member of the music community, who died last Saturday of brain cancer at age 52.

Luke Combs
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It was up to McBryde to pay tribute to Lee in song, and she chose her autobiographical "Girl Goin' Nowhere." But anyone familiar with Lee's backstory — growing up in small-town Arkansas and scrapping for her own career — knew that McBryde wasn't just singing for herself this time, and somehow she turned the song into a sacred elegy. The tender, aching performance evoked both audience tears and a standing ovation.

Janson earned another ovation for a riveting interpretation of "He Stopped Loving Her Today," managing to pay homage to George Jones' definitive version without imitation. At song's end, Janson just seemed relieved to have gotten through it.

"Any country singer ... and especially the traditional country music singers here tonight, will tell you that is nerve-wracking as hell," he told the appreciative crowd.

The performance was in honor of the late Curly Putman, a co-writer of the song who received an ACM Poet's Award, one of three presented during the evening.

In her first appearance on the hallowed stage, Spencer had the unenviable task of re-interpreting Martina McBride's stirring classic, "Independence Day." But a slowed tempo helped Spencer find a way to dig deeper into the song's tragedy as well as its triumph. By her last note, she had the audience on their feet and its songwriter, honoree Gretchen Peters, wiping away tears.

"Wow, I was a fool to think I wouldn't cry," Peters said from the stage as she accepted her Poet's Award.

Lady A
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All of the night's other performances also rose to the occasion, each in its own way shining a light on the roster of honorees.

Loretta Lynn was the third Poet's Award recipient, and Alan Jackson (whom she inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017) joined Lee Ann Womack to honor the Coal Miner's Daughter with a rousing "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man," among Lynn's duets with another Hall of Famer, Conway Twitty. The show's host, Carly Pearce, also sent a personal love letter to Lynn at the show's start with "Dear Miss Loretta," a song that will appear on her upcoming album, 29: Written in Stone, due for release Sept. 17.

Lynn was watching the live-streamed event at home and she recorded a brief audio acceptance of her award, but many more recipients were able to enjoy their tributes in person. None were more appreciative than Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney, who asked a quartet of their co-writers to perform three of Dan + Shay's biggest hits, "Speechless," "Tequila" and "10,000 Hours," and Jessie Jo Dillon, Nicolle Galyon, Laura Veltz and Jordan Reynolds all cheerfully obliged.

"Without the songwriters in this town, we would have none of this," Smyers said in accepting the Jim Reeves International Award for contributions to spreading country worldwide. "We would have none of the record sales, any of this. So it all starts with a song."

A medley of Rascal Flatts classics was delivered by a trio of women: Pearce ("Bless the Broken Road"), Caylee Hammack ("My Wish for You") and a nine-months-pregnant RaeLynn ("Life is a Highway").

Joe Don Rooney and Jay DeMarcus accepted the Cliffie Stone Icon Award for their platinum-selling group, but lead singer Gary LeVox was absent, and he went unaccounted for and unmentioned in his bandmates' remarks. (LeVox had a "prior personal commitment," according to a spokesperson for the group.) Rooney made a point of thanking DeMarcus and all the behind-the-scenes players who have contributed to the trio's success, and DeMarcus dedicated the award to his wife and children.

Last year, Rascal Flatts canceled its farewell tour and declared they had no plans to reschedule it "for the foreseeable future," and DeMarcus — well known for his dry wit — declared himself "unemployed" and pitched himself to the industry members in the house: "I've got a specific skill set. I can sit on a bus for seven to nine hours straight in an empty parking lot. I can shake hands and pose for pictures with up to 80 people a night. I can play the same 28 songs in a row while remembering all the changes in all the lyrics, remembering where to stand and when I'm supposed to speak, whenever you need me to."

Another star-powered trio, Lady A, was honored for their philanthropic work with the Gary Haber Lifting Lives Award. Tapped to sing their own tribute, they chose the fitting "What a Song Can Do," the title track from their latest project that extols the importance of music.

Reflecting on their many charitable opportunities, Charles Kelley declared, "This really, truly is our favorite work." And he threw down a challenge to the next generation of artists: "When you come into this country music industry — all you younger artists out there — it's part of the job. It's non-negotiable. You give back."

Another Lifting Lives Award went to hitmaking songwriter Ross Copperman for his years of philanthropic outreach, and he was presented with a memorable performance of his co-write, "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16." Keith Urban returned to the same stage he first introduced the song (at the 2015 Country Radio Seminar) for a solo acoustic reprise of what is now one of his signature hits. This time around, of course, he enjoyed the crowd singing along.

Ronnie Dunn, who received the 2019 Icon Award with bandmate Kix Brooks, passed the torch to his former label head, Joe Galante, and rewarded him with the Brooks & Dunn standard "Nothing About You" — a song, Dunn admitted, that Galante had to do some arm-twisting for the duo to record.

HARDY was joined by Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson on their No. 1 song, "One Beer," to honor Hillary Lindsey, who received both the 55th and 56th songwriter of the year awards. Lindsey was unable to attend so she asked Alaina to accept her trophy, and the scampish singer took full advantage of the moment.

"She told me to say whatever I wanted to," Alaina said, "except she wanted to say these two awards mean so much to her because they're voted on by her peers. And Nashville and country music means the world to her. And Lauren Alaina is her favorite artist she's ever worked with."

Jackson and Womack returned to the stage to honor RAC Clark, longtime producer of the ACM Awards and a dedicated classic-country fan, and the duo turned in a fierce performance of "Murder on Music Row," a rallying cry for traditional country that Jackson and George Strait famously performed on the 1999 CMA Awards.

Yet one more memorable salute to country music's roots was delivered by Sam Williams, the son of outlaw artist Hank Williams Jr. and grandson of country cornerstone Hank Williams. Basking in the critical acclaim of his debut album, Glasshouse Children, Williams started his own family tradition with a soulful interpretation of his grandfather's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," perhaps the Hillbilly Shakespeare's greatest lyric poem. The performance honored Ken Burns, recipient of the Tex Ritter Film Award for his epic 2019 documentary Country Music.

Trace Adkins was happy to sing the praises of fellow renegade artist Toby Keith with Keith's 2007 contrarian hit, "Love Me If You Can." Keith received the Merle Haggard Spirit Award, bestowed for carrying on the spirit of the late country legend — especially fitting, considering the two men's lengthy friendship.

"He took me under his wing when I was young," Keith said in a recorded acceptance speech. "We shared many hours and a guitar on his bus. We talked on the phone a lot. He gave me years of advice. When you grow up in the business, your heroes, your mentors, you want them to be big as life and hope that it turns out great, and Merle was that and more to me. He was exactly what I figured he would be."

At evening's end, Ashley McBryde made a return appearance to fête Luke Combs, who received the Gene Weed Milestone Award. In another indelible performance, McBryde delivered Combs' "She Got the Best of Me," showing her ease at inhabiting the music of another vocal powerhouse.

Celebrating an unprecedented string of 11 No. 1 songs, Combs thanked his fans and expressed disbelief in his extraordinary career trajectory, noting it's "not lost on me, a boy from North Carolina who moved here in 2014 standing in the Ryman-fricking-Auditorium holding a Milestone Award."

And then he capped his acceptance speech with words any of his millions of fans would want to hear: "There's a whole hell of a lot more country music in this boy right here, and I can't wait for y'all to hear it!"

The full three-hour ACM Honors show is available to stream on Circle TV, and an edited version will premiere on the channel at 8 p.m. ET Nov. 23 with an encore performance at 12 a.m. ET on Nov. 24.

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