'Bro country', white men and Chris Stapleton dominate the Academy of Country Music awards

‘Bro country’, white men and Chris Stapleton dominate the Academy of Country Music awards

An uncalled-for duet by Dolly Parton and Katy Perry failed to tip the gender imbalance, in a night as lacking in diversity as country radio playlists

Power ballads, thunderous stadium rock, swaggering R&B, a tribute to fallen musical heroes like David Bowie, a ZZ Top cover, and even an appearance by rebranded country singer Kiefer Sutherland. The three-hour show may have been billed as the Academy of Country Music awards, but its programming was obviously much broader than that.

Sundays live telecast was, tellingly, broadcast from Las Vegas, the capital of illusion. The location fit this years ACMs, which treated the actual awards as afterthoughts to the main event: the promotion of modern country stars, particularly predominantly male, white newbies who didnt perform anything closely resembling country music.

More on that later. The awards, if they did matter, belonged to Chris Stapleton, the brooding and bearded Nashville outsider who last year came to represent a supposed turning point at country radio, which had largely been spinning its wheels with bro country: that is, muscle hunks in baseball caps who deliver party songs about drinking beer on the beach. That may be an overstatement, but as Dierks Bentley sang Sunday, Got a new girl, she got it going on/we drink all day, and party all night.

So it was telling that two of the genres biggest stars, Bentley and Luke Bryan, opened the show with a comedy bit in which they, and other stars like Carrie Underwood, claimed they were responsible for Stapletons success. I was a fan of him before he had the beard, said Jason Aldean. Stapleton ended up good on that promise, winning four awards including album and song of the year. The adulation got so heavy that, in accepting the award for vocal group of the year, Little Big Towns Kimberly Schlapman thanked Stapleton for not being a vocal group.

Of the 13 awards, only seven made the actual show, with the rest announced as early as last week. The real spotlight was on the performances, the last of which was Stapletons Fly Away, a haunting country ballad that featured the singer harmonizing with his wife, Morgane. That was the most country moment in a night filled largely with male performers a reflection of current country radio playlists from which women have been shrinking in recent years, leading many female artists to charge programmers with sexism.

Chris
Chris and Morgane Stapleton perform Fire Away Photograph: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Indeed, among the few women who did perform newcomers Cam and Kelsea Ballerini along with Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert two were matched with male counterparts: Ballerini with Nick Jonas and, in a performance of ZZ Tops Tush, Lambert with Keith Urban and guitarist Billy Gibbons. The performance of the latter concentrated on requisite guitar shredding between Urban and Gibbons, leaving Lambert, one of country musics fiercest voices, with not much to do.

Strangely, the shows homogeny became even more evident when Tim McGraw performed the ballad Humble and Kind, a recent single connected to an online movement promoting global harmony. While in the middle of the MGM Grand Garden Arena, McGraw was surrounded by a multi-ethnic, multi-racial cast of people whose presence inevitably reminded the viewer of how singly uniform this industry remains.

Then there was what the ACMs promoted as a once in a lifetime event: the pairing of legend Dolly Parton with pop star Katy Perry. Who ordered this mismatch? Wearing a sparkly cowgirl outfit, Perry introduced Parton, who received a Tex Ritter award for a recent television biopic of her life. Despite recent albums by Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and others, she was the only veteran invited to this party. The duo rushed through a melody of Partons Coat of Many Colors, Jolene, and 9 to 5 near the end of the night, with Parton ad-libbing quips between lyrics.

Dolly
Who ordered this mismatch?: Dolly Parton and Katy Perry perform Coat of Many Colors at the 51st annual Academy of Country Music Awards Photograph: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

The three hours closed with the ACMs highest honor: entertainer of the year. Presenting was British actor Tom Hiddleston, who portrays Hank Williams in a new biopic. Before naming its recipient, he said the award would go to a singer who would be following in Hank Williams footsteps.

Then he called Jason Aldean to the stage. Earlier in the night Aldean sang Lights Come On, a pounding electro-rock anthem with lyrics such as, Yeah, the drink that were drinking, the smoke that were smoking/The party we throw, its going all night long.

As an Englishman and as an actor, I feel very much like a guest at this party, Hiddleston said earlier. Well, at least he has an excuse.

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