The saying goes that everything is bigger in Texas, and this year’s ACM Awards went big on starpower and hit songs.
Hosted by Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton, this year’s show offered collaborations galore, such as the stirring anthem “Bonfire at Tina’s,” from Ashley McBryde, Caylee Hammack, Brandy Clark, Pillbox Patti, and Brothers Osborne’s John Osborne, as well as the Lainey Wilson/Jelly Roll collab on Jelly Roll’s “Save Me” (followed by Wilson’s own sizzling solo rendition of “Grease”), but also heartfelt solo performances from artists including Miranda Lambert (“Carousel”) and Jordan Davis (“Next Thing You Know”).
It also cemented the impact of several rising artists and some of the genre’s most-performed songs. The show was held at The Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas, and livestreamed via Amazon Prime Video and the Amazon Music channel on Twitch.
HARDY, Lainey Wilson, Cole Swindell and Chris Stapleton were among the big winners during the evening, with Stapleton scooping entertainer of the year. Wilson, HARDY and Swindell each won multiple honors — among them, Wilson’s wins for album and female artist, Swindell’s trophies for song and single of the year (both for “She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” which interpolates the 1996 Jo Dee Messina hit “Heads Carolina, Tails California”) and HARDY’s honors for artist-writer of the year and music event of the year (the latter for “wait in the truck” with Wilson). Meanwhile, Stapleton took home his first ACM entertainer of the year honor.
Here, Billboard looks at some of the evening’s top moments:
Dolly Parton Sets ‘World on Fire’
In introducing Parton performing “World on Fire,” the debut single from her upcoming album Rockstar (out Nov. 17), Parton’s co-host for the evening, Garth Brooks, called the song “a powerful anthem just when our world could really use one.”
Indeed, Parton turned in a rhythmic–if ominous–anthem, the first release from her upcoming, 30-song album. Clad in a sparkling black outfit adorned with a massive, billowing skirt that flowed over a large portion of the stage, Parton launched into the performance with the stirring lyric, “Liar, liar, the world’s on fire/ what you gonna do when it all burns down?” From there, the song’s lyrics take on violence, unrest and, most pointedly, disreputable politicians on the lines, “Greedy politicians, present and past/ They wouldn’t know the truth if it bit ’em in the a**.”
The performance also reminded viewers of the sturdy songwriter and vocalist Parton still is, in addition to her strengths as a media personality and her ever-expanding business ventures.
Chris Stapleton Earns First Entertainer of the Year Win
Over the past nearly two decades, Chris Stapleton has proven himself as an indispensable part of the fabric of country music. Initially, he gained recognition in Nashville songwriting circles as a top-tier songwriter, penning hits for artists including Josh Turner and Kenny Chesney. His formidable voice gained attention as he served as the lead singer and a songwriter for the bluegrass outfit The SteelDrivers, before becoming part of the rock group The Jompson Brothers. Then, in 2015, Stapleton broke through as an artist in a mighty way, on the strength of his rendition of the George Jones classic “Tennessee Whiskey.” Since then, he’s only added to his arsenal of hits, and won 10 ACM trophies in categories including male artist, album of the year and songwriter of the decade. But Thursday evening, Stapleton ascended to the most coveted winner’s circle, when he was named the ACM’s entertainer of the year.
“I’m shocked, truly. By any imaginable metric, I don’t deserve this. There are so many other great people in this category. I get up there and try to play music every night. I write songs and make records and I never thought of myself as someone who would win this award,” he said, thanking his wife Morgane Stapleton, as well as his team, before dedicating the award to his children.
Lainey Wilson Meets Dolly Parton, Inspires Younger Generation
Lainey Wilson took home wins in four categories during Thursday evening’s ACM Awards, picking up trophies for music event of the year and visual media of the year (both for “wait in the truck,” her collaboration with HARDY), as well as album of the year, for her project Bell Bottom Country.
But in winning female artist of the year–awarded to her by none other than Dolly Parton, who herself took home the honor in 1980–Wilson also aimed to inspire.
“I can’t believe I just met Dolly Parton, first of all!” Wilson said in accepting her accolade. Wilson also spoke of the other artists nominated alongside her in the category–Kelsea Ballerini, Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde and Carly Pearce.
“The ladies in this category, I look up to y’all so much, and I’m here because of y’all, because of people like Dolly Parton paving the way,” Wilson said. “I’ll tell you what, everybody in this category didn’t just wind up there by happenstance. They have worked their fingers to the bone, they have put the blood, sweat and tears and years into this.”
Wilson also addressed the younger generation of country music fans, saying, “To all the little girls watching this, this right here stands for hard work. If you’re going to be a dreamer, you better be a doer.”
Luke Combs Teams With Ed Sheeran
“Shape of You” hitmaker Ed Sheeran teamed with country music mainstay Luke Combs for a scorching rendering of Sheeran’s “Life Goes On,” from the Brit’s current album, Subtract. Sheeran’s understated acoustic guitar work and soulful singing supported Combs’ full, gruff vocal, which proved a stellar match for the brokenhearted soul the song embodies. Though Combs, who was nominated for the evening’s top honor–entertainer of the year–did not take home the coveted trophy, he was part of one of the evening’s most powerful musical moments.
Following the performance, show co-host Garth Brooks took the stage to ask Sheeran about how the Combs/Sheeran pairing came to be.
“We met like 2018, I’d heard Luke’s music through a friend… and we’ve just been friends for years now,” Sheeran said, “and it’s been great.”
The War & Treaty Showcase Their Inimitable Vocal Harmonies
Husband-and-wife duo The War and Treaty have long been darlings in the Americana music scene before gaining even greater prominence via signing with country music powerhouse label UMG Nashville, and releasing their latest album, Lover’s Game. They were nominated for duo of the year at this year’s ACM Awards ceremony.
Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter are one of the most powerful vocal duos in the music game right now–in any musical genre–and they once again showcased those inimitable talents during the ACM Awards. Their performance of “Blank Page” started off with an intimate setup, as they sat opposite one another, around a single microphone–a setup reminiscent of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s 2007 music video for “I Need You.” From there, they stood and walked to separate microphones at the front of the stage, before unleashing their signature powerful, bluesy vocals and passionate harmonies, quickly earned a standing ovation from the crowd.
“That’s what you want to do in music right there,” Brooks agreed.
Miranda Lambert Offers Understated, Elegant ‘Carousel’
Last year, Miranda Lambert earned the elite ACM Triple Crown award, which recognizes an artist who has won ACM accolades for new artist of the year, male or female artist of the year and entertainer of the year.
At the 2023 ACM Awards, Lambert offered up an elegant, wistful rendition of “Carousel,” from her 2022 album Palomino. Lambert donned a ruffled, floor-length cream-colored gown and performed in front of an actual carousel.
Most recently, Lambert has landed on the New York Times’ bestseller list, with her first cookbook, Y’all Eat Yet?.
Cody Johnson Celebrates Willie Nelson
One Texas musician tipped his hat to another Texas music icon during the Academy of Country Music Awards.
“‘Til You Can’t” hitmaker Cody Johnson paid homage Willie Nelson, who recently turned 90 years old and was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Johnson paid tribute by performing a spot-on rendition of the 1978 Nelson and Waylon Jennings collaboration, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” At one point, Johnson subtly-but pointedly-shifted the chorus, singing, “Mamas, don’t let your cowboys grow up to be babies.” He closed in another nod to Nelson, ending the song by saying, “Burn one for me tonight.”
Johnson previously covered Nelson’s 1973 song “Sad Songs and Waltzes” on his 2021 double album, Human. Later in the evening during the ACM Awards, Nelson made a surprise came on the show, joining via FaceTime to chat with co-hosts Parton and Brooks.
“Thank you, Dolly, for sending those beautiful flowers for my birthday,” Nelson said, later adding, “I love all kinds of flowers, and plants, too.”
“Been there, smelled that,” Parton quipped.
Carly Pearce Honors Trisha Yearwood
In 2021, Trisha Yearwood officially inducted Carly Pearce as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. On the ACM Awards’ stage Thursday evening, the two reunited, this time to honor Yearwood, who won the ACM’s female artist of the year honor 25 years ago. Together, the two top-shelf vocalists offered up collaborations of Yearwood’s “Wrong Side of Memphis,” “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl),” and Yearwood’s debut hit, “She’s in Love With the Boy.”
In 2021, Pearce released the stellar album 29: Written in Stone, and took home the ACM’s female artist of the year in 2022.