This year’s 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards arrived with a pall cast over the show, as it was the first time the country music community convened in Las Vegas since the Route 91 Harvest festival. On October 1st, a gunman shot and killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more gathered at the festival from the window of his 32nd floor hotel room at the Mandalay Bay. For now, Route 91 is the deadliest mass shooting in United States history.
Jason Aldean, who was performing when the gunfire began, opened the ACM broadcast, standing onstage beneath a single spotlight and introducing the evening as a celebration of music. Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Thomas Rhett and Luke Bryan joined Aldean, with Bryan telling the audience, “For those of us who have experienced tragedy and unexpected loss, music helps us remember what really matters in life.”
That would be the show’s most significant mention of the shooting until its final minutes. Host Reba McEntire took the stage shortly after the opening tribute, attempting to bring more than a little levity to a sobered room with jokes that poked fun at past host duos Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley and Bryan and Blake Shelton: “I guess they finally figured out it only takes one woman to do the job of two men.” That McEntire would be chosen to host a 17th time is certainly a nod to her enduring influence (not to mention her wicked sense of humor), but, in light of this year’s circumstances, it also felt like a careful move to tap a trusted veteran for what would undoubtedly be a difficult gig.
McEntire also slyly gave the show one of its only sociopolitical moments. In her opening monologue, she nodded to the stacked Entertainer of the Year category, cracking, “Five men, no women? Looks like singles night at the Holiday Inn.” Later in the show, she joked that she’d been warned to not talk about “politics, drinking or breakups,” and, based on the evening’s antiseptic tone, everyone followed at least one third of those restrictions. Among the words never uttered was “gun,” despite some attendees donning the number “58” lapel pins to honor the 58 people killed at Route 91. Others sported “851” to remember the 851 injured at the festival.
Like the show’s dialogue, many of the night’s performances were similarly flaccid. Kenny Chesney, the show’s first performer, breezed lazily through his new song “Get Along,” a toothless ode to bumper-sticker unity. Thomas Rhett’s performance of “Marry Me,” with its faux abandoned building backdrop and dramatic string arrangement, attempted to convey far more gravitas than such a song demands. Blake Shelton offered a capable if forgettable rendition of “I Lived It.”
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