With two-dozen performances ranging from George Strait to Shakira with Blake Shelton, the 49th Academy of Country Music Awards were a country fan's dream. Which numbers will people still be talking about today? USA recaps the night's bull's-eyes and misfires.
The Band Perry, Chainsaw (**½ out of four). The midriff-baring, confetti-blasting opening number set an energetic tone for the night. Country music could do worse than having Kimberly Perry as the face of the genre.
Florida Georgia Line, Stay (**½). This performance came from the ACM Fan Jam taking place outside, simultaneous to the awards. Pyrotechnics helped distract from an otherwise flat performance.
Brad Paisley, River Bank (***½). Paisley debuted his clever new single with a perfect combination of song and setting: a slinky, Stones-y number performed by a pool complete with lifeguards and lots and lots of bikinis. Quotable lyric: "I'd go shoot tequila, take a lime and suck it — and we'd tell our bosses they can do the same."
Blake Shelton with Gwen Sebastian, My Eyes (***½). A stage full of lanterns set a romantic tone for this seductive country-soul number from co-host Shelton and his protégé from The Voice. Shelton doesn't always go for this style, but he sings it as well as anybody in the genre.
Brett Eldredge, Beat of the Music (**½). New artist nominee got a shortened version of his current single, using much of his time to glad-hand audience members and encourage them to sing along.
George Strait, I Got a Car (***). More than 30 years after his first hit, King Georgehad a huge role in this year's awards show. Leave it to Strait to perform a song that sounds like it's about a car but is really about life's turning points. He's a classic, like a '57 Thunderbird.
Lee Brice, I Drive Your Truck (***½). As he stripped it down to just him and an acoustic guitar, Brice dragged this song-of-the-year nominee along the ragged edge of grief. Wish he could have done the full song.
Eric Church, Give Me Back My Hometown (****). Church often plays a brand of country-rock that borders on the metallic. This song, its sorrow understated but no less intense, gives him a chance to show the breadth of his talent.
Justin Moore, Lettin' the Night Roll (**). Moore hardly got a chance to show his stuff with a partial-song performance that ended just as it got rolling.
Shakira with Blake Shelton, Medicine (****). More like a throbbing '80s power-pop tune than a country number — though the lyrics about whiskey and popping pills certainly fit the genre — this turned into one of the show's highlights. Shelton and Shakira have shown serious chemistry on The Voice, but nothing like this. ThisMedicine goes down smooth.
Lady Antebellum with Stevie Nicks, Golden/Rhiannon (****). Two acts that know how to make their live vocals sound magical blended into a dream country-rock quartet, first on an acoustic version of the Lady A single then with a full band on the Fleetwood Mac classic.
Keith Urban, Even the Stars Fall 4 U (****). The black-clad Urban turned one of the best songs on his Fuse album into an even better live guitar showcase. In a different era, it would be an immediate power-pop classic.
Kip Moore, Somethin' 'Bout a Truck (***). Moore got only a verse and a chorus of his breakthrough hit, but he made it count. He left the audience wanting more.
Luke Bryan, Play It Again (***). Call it meta-country — a song about loving a song. Bryan, who has a tendency to mug for the audience, sang it straight and sang it well. It may not be his best song, but he nailed the performance.
Jason Aldean, When She Says Baby (**1/2). Aldean cut an imposing figure on stage, especially with the light show behind him. Vocally, though, he didn't match up against the night's better performances. Others both sang better and rocked harder.
Miranda Lambert, Automatic (***1/2). You can bet Lambert will catch new flak for her weight loss, but she looked glamorous in her white tank top and torn jeans. She sounded even better.
Tim McGraw with Faith Hill, Meanwhile Back at Mama's (***). Seated on a stool, the tuxedo-clad McGraw half-spoke, half-sung the melody for his reflective new single. The energy level in the room lifted noticeably when Hill walked onstage to finish the song with him. Coming two hours into the show, it was the surprise of the night to that point.
Florida Georgia Line with Luke Bryan, This Is How We Roll (***). For flash and starpower, this hip-hop-infused production was a tough moment to top — two of country's hottest acts together, with cyclists doing stunts as flames shot up behind them.
Toby Keith, Shut Up and Hold On (**1/2). As a song, Keith's number didn't have much to recommend it, but it was a great showcase for his band, which included a three-piece horn section and a killer steel player.
Hunter Hayes, Invisible (***). Hayes redeemed the very shaky debut he gave this song at the Grammys in January. Having had a couple months to get used to singing this very demanding power ballad live, he finally gave it the dramatic performance it deserved.
Darius Rucker with Lady Antebellum, Wagon Wheel (****). With all the night's high-octane performance, Rucker and Lady A provided a breath of fresh folk air with an acoustic sing-along that had the audience standing and clapping.
George Strait and Miranda Lambert, I'm a Lonesome Fugitive/The Bottle Let Me Down (****). Haggard, the recipient of the ACM's Crystal Milestone Award, got the royal treatment for his 77th birthday. First, he got top-notch performances from the entertainer of the year and the top female vocalist, then the whole crowd sang himHappy Birthday.
Rascal Flatts, Rewind (***). Flatts sounded as perfect performing their new single as they've ever sounded on television. Maybe a little too perfect.
Dierks Bentley and Sheryl Crow, I Hold On (****). Bentley's single is one of the best of his career, and Sheryl Crow made it even better. Sure would be nice to get a full-blown duet recording from these two.