Luke Bryan Is Apparently Entertainer of the Year

Alternate title: Carrie Underwood delivers a virtuoso ACMs performance that proves she's the real EOTY.

For the uninitiated: the Academy of Country Music Awards (ACMs) are somewhat less prestigious than the similarly named Country Music Association Awards (CMAs), but are nonetheless an important barometer of where things stand on Music Row. If Sunday night was any indication, the establishment is increasingly interested in the appearance of diversity—the show featured a relatively diverse roster of performers and presenters that did not at all reflect the reality on the charts or behind the scenes—but has little desire for actual change. Notably, all five nominees for Entertainer of the Year, the night’s top prize, were white men.

In November, the CMAs courted minor controversy when they tweeted that their show would be a “no drama zone,” which some country singers took as a veiled warning against expressing their political beliefs. This year’s ACMs made no such promises, but mostly served an apolitical fantasy nonetheless. CBS aired a few vaccine PSAs during the ceremony—a potential sore spot given how much of country music’s audience is “vaccine-hesitant”—but the ads were obviously made with this audience in mind and struck a conciliatory tone. (“It’s totally normal to have questions [about the vaccine],” earnestly offered Ashley McBryde. “I did too.”) Even Mickey Guyton’s history-making hosting gig felt somewhat rote, both because she so effortlessly fit the bill and because the show was so performance-heavy that Guyton and co-host Keith Urban made minimal appearances.

This was country music’s fourth pandemic-time awards ceremony, and despite some Covid-related logistical hurdles—the show contained a mix of live and pre-taped performances filmed across six stages in Nashville—it was mostly Music Row as usual. That means lots of male winners, a few standout performances, and several songs that would be convincing parodies if performed under different circumstances.

Here’s The Good, The Bad, and The Awful of the 2021 ACMs.

The Good:

  • Carrie Underwood and CeCe Winans’s medley of songs from My Savior was the obvious highlight of the night, with both legends showcasing unbelievable vocal power and control. When I saw Underwood perform at Madison Square Garden in 2019 (flex of the century), I was surprised by the energy in the room during her more overtly religious songs. Which is to say, Underwood knows her audience, and she delivers.

  • Maren Morris won Best Female Artist and Song of the Year, casually asserting that progressive politics and mainstream country success are no longer mutually exclusive. You still can’t convince me “The Bones” is a country song, though.

  • Two words: Miranda Lambert. Lambert and Elle King, decked out in bodysuits and fringe jackets, opened the show with the delightfully vapid bop “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home).” Later, Lambert filled in for Morgane Stapleton on husband Chris’s mournful “Maggie’s Song” and brought Marfa to the Ryman, alongside collaborators Jon Randall and Jack Ingram, with the tender ballad “In His Arms.”

  • Other highlights: Ashley McBryde’s riverfront performance of the revenge fantasy “Martha Divine,” Luke Combs’s improbably moving rendition of “Forever After All” (still a ridiculous song), and Mickey Guyton’s ascendent, wind-machine-assisted performance of “Hold On.”

The Bad:

  • The reigning “co-winner” of last year’s EOTY award (don’t get me started), Thomas Rhett opened his performance with “Country Again,” a surprisingly gentle back-to-basics number. Rhett then segued into “What’s Your Country Song,” a track that panders to his audience so hard it may as well be called “Please Like This!!!”

  • Similarly, Blake Shelton, who makes $13 million per season hosting The Voice, performed his song “Minimum Wage,” which is as out of touch as it sounds. “Girl, your love is money,” he sang over and over, potentially his most emotionally honest lyric in years.

  • The punchline of Luke Bryan’s new Jockey commercial is that he’s too manly to wear anything more revealing than boxer briefs. Seems like a weird way to sell underwear, but OK.

  • Dan + Shay had some technical difficulties during their performance, which was so sonically offensive I barely even noticed that the audio was out-of-sync with the video.

  • Keith Urban seems like a great guy, but his performance of “Tumbleweed” was the most confusing moment of a night that also included Little Big Town doing a Homecoming-style rendition of their song “Wine, Beer, Whiskey.

The Awful:

If last year’s inexplicable tie between Carrie Underwood and Thomas Rhett was frustrating, watching perma-bro Luke Bryan walk away with the night’s top prize was downright depressing. Bryan, who makes almost singularly terrible music, has now won Entertainer of the Year three times, which means he has as many wins as Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, and Shania Twain combined. This is the ninth time in 10 years that a man has won EOTY, another stat that is impressive in its awfulness.

Bryan’s win sends an obvious message: Despite increasing calls for diversity in country music, the establishment is happy to continue rewarding white men for their mediocrity. And whereas in the pop world, semi-apologetic acceptance speeches have become commonplace, there was no performance of humility on Bryan’s part. He grinned as he thanked country radio for his success, a comment that couldn’t help but feel conspiratorial.

Doesn’t Bryan understand that his success comes not in spite of country radio’s blatant sexism, but because of it? The answer, unfortunately, is probably not. In a 2013 interview that made me want to throw away my computer, Bryan attributed the lack of parity on country radio to… wait for it… how long it takes for women to get ready.

“I remember waking up, and you know, hell, I’d hop in the shower quickly,” Bryan told Entertainment Weekly. “Some girls on radio tours, it will take them two hours to get all dolled up to do three songs for a radio guy. They do two hours worth of glam.”

In Bryan’s world, “radio guys” are drinking buddies who spin whatever garbage you put out, and “girls” are misguided creatures whose vanity is the only logical barrier to their success. Never mind that many of these stations have rules against playing women back-to-back or that sexual harassment runs rampant on radio tours.

It’s the glam that’s the problem.

Notes on New and New-ish Country Releases

“Goodnight, America” - Miko Marks

13 years after her last album and the ostensible end of her career in Nashville, Miko Marks has returned with Our Country, an album that fuses country, blues, folk, and gospel influences to wondrous effect. "America, your dream has died,” she sings on this standout, which is equal parts lullaby and elegy.

“Groove” - Ashley Monroe

The third single released from Monroe’s upcoming album Rosegold, "Groove” pairs sumptuous strings with a viscous bass line in an arrangement that surprises at every turn. Lyrically, Monroe is looser than ever, and while a part of me misses the precise poetry of her early work, I’m content to follow Monroe wherever she goes from here.

“Small Town Hypocrite” - Caylee Hammack (feat. Chris Stapleton)

Last year’s best-written country song gets a facelift featuring very prominent Stapleton backing vocals. At times his voice threatens to overpower hers, and the whole thing feels unnecessary. That said, if a forced collab is what it takes to draw much-deserved attention to Hammack and this song, I’ll allow it.

“Younger Me” - Brothers Osborne

The Brothers Osborne go full Springsteen on a track that manages to be uplifting but never trite. This is in part because of the context: Lead singer T.J. Osborne came out as gay in February, which makes lines like “Younger me, way too young to pace the bedroom floor” almost painfully relatable. Read the TIME interview if you haven’t.

“Fist Through This Town” - Charlie Worsham

One of Nashville’s most underrated talents channels his career-related frustrations into a country rocker that is also Springsteen, but in a different way. I’m not convinced that this will be the commercial breakthrough Worsham is hoping for, but it’s thrilling to hear him ditch the Mississippi groove of his previous work and really rock out.

Tomi Lahren Is a Morgan Wallen Fan

I’m wary of this newsletter turning into a roundup of people’s problematic behavior on IG, but I must report on seeing Ms. BLM-Is-The-New-KKK herself lurking in Morgan Wallen’s Instagram comments. After Wallen posted a cryptic non-apology letter (TLDR: his summer shows are canceled, but the comeback tour isn’t far off), Lahren could be spotted in the comments offering several American flag emojis and a pointedly white clapping hands emoji. Heavy sigh.

Just to clarify: Morgan Wallen is an extremely successful country singer whose most recent album broke numerous records after a video of him drunkenly shouting the N-word went viral. Months after his supposed cancelation, he still has several songs on the Billboard Hot Country chart, and it won't be long before we seem him back on the Airplay chart.

That he’s become an object of affection for right-wing trolls is as predictable as it is maddening. Turns out, you don’t need to point guns at protesters to become an icon of the alt-right. You can also be a famous person who gets plastered and yells racist things. Fabulous!

Sidewinder Has a Spotify Playlist!

If you want to listen to songs from this and other issues, follow the Sidewinder playlist on Spotify. I promise to update it regularly and only include the good stuff.