On Thursday night (Sept. 28), the Grand Ole Opry House hosted the inaugural, fan-powered People’s Choice Country Awards, hosted by Little Big Town.
The awards ceremony — which aimed to add a fourth major country music awards show to the annual country awards circuit — thrust many of today’s top crop of stars and timeless icons into the spotlight as the show aired live on NBC and Peacock.
Blake Shelton honored Toby Keith with the Country Icon award for his decades of writing and recording scores of hits such as “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “American Soldier,” as well as for his work supporting children and military veterans.
Meanwhile, Wynonna Judd was honored by the Brothers Osborne with the Country Champion award, for her advocacy for mental health and suicide prevention.
Morgan Wallen, Lainey Wilson and Jelly Roll were among the top honorees. Wallen earned the people’s artist of 2023, as well as the album of 2023 (for One Thing at a Time) and the concert tour of 2023 (for his One Night at a Time World Tour). Wilson won the female artist of 2023 as well as the collaboration song of 2023 (alongside Jelly Roll for their duet “Save Me”) and music video of the year (with HARDY for “wait in the truck”). In addition to the collaboration song of 2023, Jelly Roll was named the male artist of 2023, new artist of 2023, and his “Need a Favor” was named song of 2023. Dan+Shay was named the group/duo of 2023.
The PCCAs also offered unique categories, including social country star of 2023 (which went to Shelton) and the crossover song of 2023 (which went to the P!nk/Chris Stapleton collab “Just Say I’m Sorry”).
But as has become the norm for awards shows these days, it was the performances that gave the People’s Choice Country Awards some of the most impactful moments. Here, we rank the show’s performances, ending with what we considered the most impactful performance of the evening.
Little Big Town
The evening’s hosts, quartet Little Big Town, launched the People’s Choice Country Awards with a spirited rendering of their 2006 breakthrough hit “Boondocks.” The group’s always on-point vocal harmonies were luminous as they sang of tin roofs, front porches, gravel roads and taking pride in their rural roots.
As the song came to a close, LBT’s members stepped off stage and into the aisles of the Grand Ole Opry House, shaking hands with artists and other audience members alike, including HARDY, Wynonna, Dustin Lynch, Dan + Shay, Brothers Osborne and more. While the audience was noticeably dressed up for the occasion, this opening set signaled an open-hearted, upbeat party atmosphere.
Still, given the history of the Grand Ole Opry House stage, the group’s versatile vocals, and this show-opening moment, perhaps an unexpected cover of a country music classic or a specially revamped version of a more recent hit would have given the show’s opening number more power.
The evening’s final performance wasn’t live in the Opry House, but rather was a remote performance beamed into the broadcast, as Jelly Roll headlined a concert on his Backroad Baptism tour. The PCCAs’ closing performance was Jelly Roll channeling unreserved, raw desperation into the rock-fused “Save Me.”
Donning a jacket that read “Better With the Lost Than With the Found,” the soulful grit in his voice was on full display. Sparks fell to the stage, as the camera panned to audience members crying, singing along. Still, this remote performance setting, an at times seemingly muffled vocal, and the constant toggling between audience and performer at times kept the full weight of the moment from full translating for viewers.
Blake Shelton helped honor Toby Keith’s career as a singer, the sole songwriter behind many of his own hits, a businessman and philanthropist. In addition to presenting the Country Icon award to Keith during the ceremony, Shelton performed Keith’s 2002 hit “Who’s Your Daddy?”
His rendering was more straitlaced than Keith’s burly, swaggering original, but Shelton’s natural charisma and twang serviced the song mightily, especially when he approximated Keith’s distinct vibrato while holding out the final “your man” for great effect. During the performance, Keith stood solemnly, arms often folded while taking in the performance intently.
HARDY has had quite the year thanks to his Lainey Wilson hit duet “wait in the truck,” but on Thursday night, he brought the metal-rock edge of his The Mockingbird and the Crow album to the revered country music stage, marking his first-ever performance on the Grand Ole Opry House stage.
Appropriate for a song titled “Truck Bed,” his performance started in the back of a truck, and followed as HARDY walked through the backstage of the Opry House to the stage. He performed before a backdrop of a nighttime urban city scene, with smoke plumes bolstering the hazy, angst-fueled moment as he sang of an alcohol-fueled night after getting dumped by his lover.
The genre-straddling Kane Brown brought a laid-back, youthful energy to his performance of “Bury Me in Georgia,” which recently became Brown’s 10th No. 1 Country Airplay hit. Sauntering across the Opry House stage, his molasses-smooth voice was in top form on a song that highlights his supple vocal range.
“How we feelin’ tonight?” he asked the crowd, as he walked across the Opry stage, singing a fiddle-laced song of future-focused legacy, delivered with centered conviction, and on a stage renowned for both its past and its star-surging present.
Dan + Shay
Dan + Shay made their first televised performance since letting fans in on their near-breakup, as they performed the title track to their newly released album Bigger Houses.
The stage setup referenced the album cover for Bigger Houses, with Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney seated on a small home structure, flanked by a white picket fence and their band.
The duo’s magnetic, upbeat performance style hasn’t dimmed, with Mooney’s always-illustrious voice in fine shape, alongside Smyers’ smooth harmonies and relaxed guitar playing, as the duo sang about choosing to find happiness in the moment, eschewing the constant chase for grander surroundings.
With her effervescent personality and love for fashion, Ballerini has become known for her charismatic, upbeat performances over the years. But on the Opry stage, she offered a strikingly soul-bearing performance of “Mountain with a View” from her heartbreakingly vulnerable EP, Rolling Up the Welcome Mat. Dressed in a golden sparkly gown, and flanked by her band, Ballerini began the song while seated on steps, before stepping into the lit-up circle at center stage, accenting the lyrics with elegant, flowing movement and deep stares into the camera as she musically chronicled the pinpointing of little moments that signaled a dissolving marriage.
Pearce recently issued a heartbroken duet with Chris Stapleton in “We Don’t Fight Anymore,” but during the People’s Choice Country Awards, she made the astute decision to focus her awards show performance on the Grand Ole Opry stage with a tribute to the genre.
Brandishing a guitar and soaked in yellow lighting, Pearce offered a love letter to country music with her debut performance of “Country Music Made Me Do It,” for the genre’s indelible influence on getting her into — and, more importantly, carrying her through — trouble, offering comfort through bad decisions. She laid the blame for teased-up hair, boozy nights and more at country music’s feet, her natural Kentucky twang and backing fiddle work a natural foil for this traditional-minded composition.
“’80s and ‘90s country music, y’all!” said Wynonna, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year for her work as part of the mother-daughter duo The Judds.
Dressed in sparkly black, with lace gloves accenting her fiery red hair, Wynonna poured rock ‘n’ roll swagger and innate vigor into her performance of “I Saw the Light.” Half-singing, half-speaking, with power flowing through the lyrics, she broke into a defiant laugh as she roared into “No One Else on Earth,” her signature growl shot through with bite.
As she accepted the PCCAs Country Champion honor from presenters Brothers Osborne, she recalled her career history of signing a record deal soon after graduating from high school, spending a decade touring alongside her mother Naomi as The Judds, forging a successful solo career after The Judds were forced to disband due to Naomi’s health, and now navigating a new career chapter after the death of her mom.
“Regardless of what has happened to me, I show up and I show out,” she said. “I looked the word champion up today and it says to do battle for others’ honor, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. … The highs are high and the lows are low, baby, but don’t ever let them tell you who you are.”
Toby Keith performed during the People’s Choice Country Awards, marking his first television performance since his stomach cancer diagnosis in 2021, and gave one of the evening’s most powerful, sobering moments.
After accepting his Country Icon honor from Blake Shelton, Keith offered a wise-cracking one-liner that also nodded to the toll his cancer battle has taken, saying, “I bet you all never thought you’d see me in skinny jeans.”
Standing at the microphone and wielding his trusty guitar, Keith looked thin and vulnerable as he sang a convicting, solemn version of “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” which was featured in the Clint Eastwood movie The Mule.
Art reflecting life, his unvarnished singing of lyrics such as “Many moons I have lived/ My body’s weathered and worn” made the moment potent and even harrowing, though his voice as warm, strong and nuanced as ever. He ended by pointing to the ceiling, as the audience in the Opry House rose to its feet and cheered, and Keith’s wife Tricia seen wiping away tears.