HITS Daily Double
Music City

By Holly Gleason

From the moment the unstoppable Lainey Wilson hit the satellite stage—performing Little Texas’ “God Bless Texas,” it was clear the 59th Academy of Country Music Awards was going to lean hard into the friskiness and out-yonder kind of country that derives its appeal from the actual country. Dressed in red, the current Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year was the only female nominated in the ACMs’ top category. By night’s end, she’d make it a pair.

In just two years, the Louisiana farmer’s daughter has gone from Best New Female Artist to winning country music’s biggest awards. After debuting her saucy “Hold on Honey,” Wilson not only won Female Artist and Music Event of the Year with rap/rock/country sensation Jelly Roll on his wrenching “Save Me,” she also took home Entertainer; making her the first artist since The (Dixie) Chicks to become an ACM triple-crown winner in just two years.

Onstage she talked of crawling out on the roof, looking up at the stars and the planes overhead, her 13-year struggle and crazy acceleration of the last three, her gratitude palpable. Beyond her Cinderella moment, the night’s other peak emotion had to be Post Malone, who’s been tilting at country for a couple of years, following a strong Stagecoach set by appearing at one of country’s most hallowed awards shows.

Post Malone showed himself to be a fine country singer on the aching ballad “Never Love You Again,” the bouncy midtempo “I Had Some Help” (without track mate Morgan Wallen) and a spontaneous a capella “Ramblin’ Man” with host Reba that delightfully celebrated recently deceased Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickie Betts. Clearly loving the music, Post has a molasses-and-flannel voice suited to the genre and a delivery that falls into an authentic space, making him a truer traditional vocalist than many artists currently in the format.

Best New Male Nate Smith brought vocal ballast and an intensity to his recasting of 10-week #1 “Bulletproof” with the equally formidable Avril Lavigne, while multiple nominee Cody Johnson’s “Dirt Cheap” offered a bucolic ballad that delivered traditional values. Multiple Entertainer of the Year winner Jason Aldean performed a powerfully yearning “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” to memorialize 2024 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Toby Keith that brought his family—and much of the audience—to tears.

After years of BroCountry templates, this ceremony displayed dexterity and diversity. Entertainer of the Year nominee Kane Brown created a Sinatra-esque performance on Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” that was elegant and slightly swinging, Visual Media winner Parker McCollum embraced a George Strait-evoking classicism with “Burn It Down,” and Male Artist of the Year Chris Stapleton conjured a sweltering “I Think I’m Love With You” with surprise guest Dua Lipa that was as penetrating as it was passionate.

And then there was Texan Miranda Lambert, all fringe and Cheshire smile, leaning into “Wranglers.” The winningest artist in ACM history scorched the smoky female-empowerment anthem from the first “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” With an intentional verve, the former Entertainer of the Year suggested that the next phase of her storied career will be the most interesting.

Jordan Davis’ Song of the Year win for “Next Thing You Know” bookends his CMA Song of the Year for “Buy Dirt” in a win that showed the likable vocalist’s life-derived songwriting connects deeply with voters. Life-derived writing also defined Stapleton’s wins for Album of the Year and Artist-Songwriter as well as Luke Combs’ Single of the Year win for his reverent take on Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”

Ashley McBryde, presenting Single of the Year with Noah Reid, seized the moment to create some spontaneous musical commentary. After joking about feeling awkward, they sang the nominated songs with new lyrics McBryde had written about Lower Broadway, star bars, flying chairs and publicist intervention, generating the night’s biggest laughs.

Whether putting together pop collabs—Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, Kelsea Ballerini and Noah Kahan—or the churchy “I Can’t” finale from 17-time host Reba, producers Raj Kapoor and Parick Menton stacked two hours with a sweeping pace suited to the livestreaming platform Amazon Prime provides. For the always-progressive ACM, led by CEO Damon Whiteside and this year’s board chair, Ebie McFarland, their livestreamed awards show offered a dynamic that ramped up momentum and a flow that kept viewers engaged.

Announcing her return as host for the ACMs’ 60th anniversary, Reba fittingly closed the night. With the news of the diamond-anniversary show returning to Amazon, the successful transition from broadcast to streaming platform felt not just complete but visionary.