Did the ACM Awards actually get country music right?

“Am I original?” Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line sang during Sunday night’s Academy of Country Music Awards. (The answer he seemed to be looking for was “yeah-eh.”)

“Am I the only one?” he continued. (Nobody else was wearing a satiny silver jacket and his hair in a top knot.)

“Am I sexual?” (This he delivered with real zest, so let’s consider it confirmed.)

What Hubbard was not, at least for the moment, was a man singing a country song.

Instead, one of Nashville’s top hit-makers had taken over lead vocals on a vigorous rendition of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” the late-1990s teen-pop classic by the Backstreet Boys. Having charged over to Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena from their residency at Planet Hollywood, the Backstreet Boys weren’t just lending their song to the ACMs but their bodies (and boundless promotional drive) too; the performance ended with the members of the boy band leading Hubbard and FGL’s Brian Kelley through a bit of their signature choreography.

A reaction shot on the CBS telecast caught Tim McGraw pointing in disbelief, as though he never thought he’d see the day.

In fact, the moment was typical of the ACMs, which has long sought to distinguish itself from country music’s other big annual awards show — the more august Country Music Assn. Awards — through its happy embrace of cheap pop spectacle. (One way to think of the difference is the Academy Awards compared with the Golden Globes.)

Historically, that’s made the ACMs the more entertaining of the two events, and also — because it’s less concerned with safeguarding tradition — the one more responsive to country’s shifts in sound and attitude.

But it hasn’t encouraged anyone to think of the show as a place to make a serious statement, which is why Sunday’s production felt like a pleasant surprise: Here was the rare awards show that managed to strike a comfortable balance between lightweight and heavy, trashy and deep, where music has been and where it’s going.

Joining Florida Georgia Line and the Backstreet Boys at the ACM snack bar, the blow-dried arena-rock revivalists of Rascal Flatts ran through their Bon Jovi-ish new single, “Yours If You Want It,” while Brett Eldredge did his oily “Somethin’ I’m Good At” as part of an elaborate number that had him prowling the audience.

Yet more nourishing flash came from Lady Antebellum, which brought out the UNLV marching band for help on the funky “You Look Good,” and Kelsea Ballerini, whose very sparkly “Yeah Boy” demonstrated how completely country has absorbed the textures of ’80s pop in Taylor Swift’s wake.

Ditto a pair of male-female duets set over surging disco grooves: “The Fighter,” by Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood, and “Craving You,” by Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris. (Rhett, who won song of the year and was named male vocalist of the year, and Morris, named new female vocalist of the year, were among the night’s big winners, along with entertainer of the year Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert, who took album of the year with “The Weight of These Wings” and won her eighth consecutive female vocalist of the year trophy.)

Most impressive of the forward-looking types was Sam Hunt, who moved, dressed and sang like a white, Southern Drake in a totally assured rendition of “Body Like a Back Road,” his sly No. 1 country hit about a woman with no need for a belt.

Though his 2014 debut album, “Montevallo,” showcased ideas that had clearly been thought through, Hunt’s live performances over the next few years didn’t always ooze confidence. This one did.

For all the ACMs had to say about country’s future — and, make no mistake, that future looks like the open-eared Hunt — this year’s show didn’t neglect the past, and not just by reviving a 20-year-old Backstreet Boys song.

Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley, who served as co-hosts, teamed up for a strong tribute to the late Chuck Berry that featured a delightfully noisy guitar solo on “Johnny B. Goode” by the Eagles’ Joe Walsh. Chris Stapleton channeled a Lynyrd Skynyrd vibe in a strutting new song, “Second One to Know.”

And Lambert and Morris both gave powerful, stripped-down solo performances of tunes about broken hearts: Lambert’s “Tin Man” and Morris’ “I Could Use a Love Song.”

Both sounded like they could’ve been written at any point in the last 60 years. Both felt as fresh as could be.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

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