The fans at the Academy of Country Music Awards Thursday night were ready for a good time, if not a long time. The audience cheered and two-stepped minutes into the show as Keith Urban opened the night with “Texas Time.” And when Urban introduced Garth Brooks, the night’s cohost, the crowd roared.
For nearly 60 years, the ACM Awards has honored the brightest lights in the country music scene, everyone from songwriters to musicians to radio stations. Live-streamed by Amazon Prime for the second year in a row, the award show has recently been held in Las Vegas. But it returned to North Texas on Thursday night for the first time since 2015, taking over the Star in Frisco. (The 50th ACMs were held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington eight years ago.)
All week long, the academy held events across the Star, including a ACM Country Kickoff Tuesday, ACM Songs and Stories Wednesday, and a Dolly Parton pop-up shop.
The Cowboys training stadium normally seats 12,000, but thousands more sidled into folding plastic chairs arranged on the field and stared toward a large stage at one end. Two smaller stages were set up amongst the crowd. The audience’s cheers reverberated around the facility like a football game, especially when someone like Garth Brooks took the stage.
This was the first time the ‘90s country icon hosted the award show. Brooks began by looking to the past, riffing on who was the greatest country singer of all time. (“A.K.A. the GOAT.”) Maybe it’s country music legends Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard or George Strait. Or, maybe, North Texas’ own Charley Pride. Then, he suggested that the true test of “GOAT” status was longevity.
“People,” he said, “I’m not so sure that last one doesn’t make the king of country music a female.”
Right on cue, Dolly Parton, whose music career has now spanned eight decades, joined Brooks on stage. She pulled an actual goat in a wagon behind her. The crowd screamed. Parton, the evening’s other cohost, cracked jokes with Brooks and welcomed the crowd. And then the show really began.
Moments from the ACM Red Carpet
Stars from near and far walked the red (ahem, black) carpet before the show. Here are a few things they had to say.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Texas?
“Eat Mexican food. We love it. Or a good steak.”
You live here in town. Do you have a favorite fitness studio?
“Sessions Pilates is my go-to.”
You and your wife are Dallasites. What should visitors do while in town?
“Drink Tito’s and go to Whataburger and enjoy it really late at night, because it’s really going to help you survive the next day. Then go get some boots in Fort Worth.”
You’re from Grand Prairie, but Grand Prairie, Alberta. And you came to North Texas last year to open for George Strait. What’s he like?
“He’s wonderful. We were actually talking about it: It was snowing in Fort Worth when I was opening up for him. And we were laughing—he was like, ‘did you bring the Canada around here or what?’”
What’s your favorite thing to do when visiting Texas?
“My favorite thing is going to Cowboys games.”
The Awards were more concert than ceremony. There 18 performances from 25 different artists. The main stage was divided into two sides—an artist sang on one side, while a screen hid the next performer setting up on the other side. Some performances were more produced than others. Visual Media of the Year winner HARDY’s “Truck Bed” and Entertainer of the Year nominee Kane Brown’s “Bury Me in Georgia” featured light shows that made it feel more like a rock concert. Bell Bottom Country singer Lainey Wilson literally played air guitar while fireworks and fire erupted behind her during her performance of “Grease.”
Other performances were more simple, with just the artist and a few musicians behind them on a smaller stage. Male Artist of the Year nominee Jordan Davis sang “Next Thing You Know”. New Female of the Artist of the Year winner Hailey Whitters serenaded with “Everything She Ain’t*.” Breakthrough Artist winner Bailey Zimmerman boogied around the stage during his “Rock and A Hard Place” number.
Of course, there were duets. Cole Swindell, who took home three awards for “She Had Me At Heads Carolina,” mashed his big-winning remix with Jo Dee Messina and her original “Heads Carolina, Tails California.” Carly Pearce teamed up with Trisha Yearwood for a medley of the latter’s greatest hits, like “XXX’s And OOO’s” and “She’s In Love With the Boy.” The screen next to the stage displayed the lyrics so people could sing along, karaoke style.
Duo of the Year nominees The War and Treaty performed. Husband and wife, Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount faced each other and held both hands as they sang, before walking downstage to perform their signature powerhouse belting. The crowd cheered in appreciation; I cried. “That’s what you want to do in music,” said Brooks after their performance.
The show also featured several unexpected pairings. Luke Combs and British pop star Ed Sheeran sang “Life Goes On.” Rapper-turned-country-artist Jelly Roll sang “Somebody Save Me,” a gritty rock ballad, with Wilson, who also has acted on Yellowstone.
Throughout the show, Dolly and Garth would pop up to make comments, present awards, and give shout outs. At one point, they FaceTimed Willie Nelson, who turned 90 on April 30, to wish him “happy birthday.” When Brooks asked what he should get him, Nelson replied, “I love all kinds of flowers … and plants, too.” Then Texas singer and ACM nominee Cody Johnson sang “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” in tribute.
New artists and country legends—like Tanya Tucker—presented the awards. Cowboys players Dak Prescott and Emmitt Smith also presented, of course. (“Welcome to our house,” Prescott told the audience.) The night’s biggest winners were HARDY and Wilson, who took home four wins each. Many performers got choked up as they accepted their awards. When accepting Entertainer of the Year, Chris Stapleton seemed to be grasping for words: “I get up there, I stand there, and I play music,” he said.
Others used their time on the podium to reflect on what was happening beyond the Star. After winning Group of the Year, Old Dominion member Matthew Ramsey referenced last weekend’s shooting in Allen, a dozen or so miles away from the night’s festivities. He said he was proud of his band’s accomplishment, but “we’re most proud for people who are hurting right now.” Wilson encouraged little girls to work hard. “If you’re gonna be a dreamer, you better be a doer,” she said.
The two-hour show ended with Dolly premiering a single from her upcoming rock album, Rockstar. While out of her usual country-pop style, Parton has said she wrote the record so she’d feel she deserved her 2022 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During her performance of “World On Fire,” she stood on a platform surrounded by dancers and pyrotechnics as confetti burst around her.
The song had an edge: “We all know too well we’ve all been through hell,” words from a woman who’s seen too much over her long career. But, it ended with her calling for listeners to “show some love” and “lend a hand.”
As the confetti settled at the end of her song, Brooks joined her onstage to sign off the show. Then the lights came on, and fans began filing out, taking a final swig of their drinks and chattering on about the show. The night was wild and loud, a country concert with the energy of a football game.
Said Brooks, “You’re always going to have a great time in Texas.”
*A previous version of this article used the wrong title for Whitters’ song. This has been corrected.