Well, that was something. The 2023 ACM Awards ended on a Texas-sized downer, with Dolly Parton giving the premiere of the new song “World on Fire” from her upcoming rock project and showering the audience not only with confetti, but with a sense of impending doom while dancers twirled around her.
“What we gonna do when it all burns down?” she sang, backed by a stomp-clap rhythm straight out of late-Nineties Shania Twain. It sounded sort of urgent 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 is truth?” The song, despite being performed by a legitimate legend who rarely missteps, seemed to be confused about what it was actually trying to say. Unfortunately, the same could be said about much of the ACMs this year — especially when the show actually had an opportunity to say something new.
It was a new location, the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas, and the ACMs are still relatively new to the streaming game after migrating from network television in 2022. Those might have been advantages. But so much of what happened felt like we’d been here before. Keith Urban opened the show with a song called “Texas Time” that actually appeared on his 2018 album Graffiti U. Cole Swindell and Jo Dee Messina, who delighted the crowd at the CMA Awards in November, did their same schtick for “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” — a song derived from Messina’s 1996 hit. Ashley McBryde and her Lindeville pals did “Bonfire at Tina’s,” which is unassailably great, but still felt a little too similar to her performance of a Linda Ronstadt hit with the same crew at the CMAs. (Though one bonus of the ACMs being a streamed show is getting to revel in hearing McBryde say “shit” and “bitches” without getting bleeped.)
Earlier in the show, Parton slipped in a joke about a threesome with co-host Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, surely a country-awards show first, but it couldn’t keep up that spicy tone. Yearwood, one of the greatest singers in this genre, or any genre, received a too-brief medley of three songs with Carly Pearce that never really had a chance to take flight. Some folks, like Morgan Wallen — sidelined for six weeks with vocal issues — and Carrie Underwood were nowhere to be seen. In a little ironic twist, Wallen did end up winning Male Vocalist of the Year. “To tell you the truth, we all know what it takes to win this award,” Brooks said. “To be here not to get it must be killing him, so let’s all celebrate for Morgan Wallen.”
The show’s two-hour runtime resulted in a refreshingly quick pace, but there were still some obvious time-stretching moments backstage with Bobby Bones interviewing nominees, and awkward post-performance interviews by Brooks. But when it came time to remember those who’d died since the last ACMs, giants like Naomi Judd and Loretta Lynn, there was just some brief “we remember you” banter and an admittedly exquisite a cappella hymn from Parton.
That said, let’s talk about the good stuff. Miranda Lambert sang her lovely, haunting “Carousel.” Cody Johnson sounded great singing a Willie Nelson classic. And Ed Sheeran and Luke Combs made for compelling 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 big night, winning Album of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year for making music that’s fun and actually enjoyable. “I’m up here because of y’all, because of people like Dolly Parton, pavin’ the way,” Wilson said in one of her acceptance speeches. “For the little girls watching this, it stands for hard work. If you’re gonna 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 for a swaggering performance of “Grease,” a country-funk banger that’s easily the best (and possibly only) contemporary country song about being unabashedly horny.
Wilson was one of several welcome new (or relatively new) faces on the program. Husband-and-wife duo the War and Treaty brought the house down (like they did with Dierks Bentley in 2021) with a smoldering performance that went from intimate to massive in the space of three minutes. Were they ready for the moment? You better believe it. There were also big moments for Bailey Zimmerman and newly certified stars Hardy and Jelly Roll.
Unlike the CMT Awards in April, which went directly at some big issues like the Covenant School shooting in Nashville and legislation restricting drag performance in several states, the ACMs stayed away from the hottest buttons. The Allen, Texas, mall shooting, one of two grisly mass shooting in Texas last week, was just a short drive from where the awards were being held, but the only acknowledgement of that event came from Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey during their acceptance speech for Group of the Year, in which he said he wanted to comfort people who were hurting.
And so the cycle completed itself, a big pats-on-the-back party during which we could carry on as if things happening here in the real world aren’t a complete nightmare. Country music prides itself on honesty and realness, not to mention its straightforward ability to say something important, and those qualities can still be found in the music. It’s just too bad the 2023 ACMs ran so short on both.