Is bigger necessarily better?
There was no doubting the Academy of Country Music's answer to that question Sunday night, when the Encino-based trade group threw its 50th annual awards show at the cavernous AT&T Stadium near Dallas.
With an in-person audience of approximately 70,000 -- so huge "we just made the Guinness Book of World Records," according to co-host Blake Shelton – the 3½-hour ceremony, broadcast live on CBS, flaunted its size as a way to stand out in the increasingly crowded awards-show scene. And, indeed, you had to admit that all those sweeping crane shots made a strong visual impact as they took in the massive crowd – images far more memorable than any from, say, last month's iHeartRadio Music Awards.
But an event of this scale requires big moments to fill it up, and the ACM Awards didn't always provide them. At points the show made you miss the relatively cozy confines of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, where the ACMs are usually held.
One person surely happy about the larger platform was Luke Bryan, who in addition to co-hosting with Shelton won the night's top prize, for entertainer of the year. Accepting his trophy from Steven Tyler (one of several country carpetbaggers on hand Sunday), Bryan exuded the kind of unabashed excitement you rarely see on the back-patting circuit.
Other winners included Miranda Lambert, who took home awards for female vocalist of the year, album of the year and song of the year; Jason Aldean, named male vocalist of the year; and Little Big Town, whose victory as vocal group of the year all but certified its takeover from the flailing Lady Antebellum.
Of course, viewers aren't tuning into awards shows because of the awards; they're watching for the performances, which is why the ACMs front-loaded the show with a couple of powerful ones.
Up first, Eric Church growled through "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag," his ode to the country veteran Merle Haggard, who we were told had been named most promising male vocalist at the first ACM Awards in 1966. Then George Strait took the stage for a totally assured "All My Ex's Live in Texas" that demonstrated why he was able to play AT&T Stadium on his own last year. That show served as the last stop on what Strait said would be his final tour, but here he hardly seemed like a man fit for retirement. (Somebody start a petition for a comeback now.)
Lambert put across a similar degree of confidence in her punky mash-up of "Mama's Broken Heart" and "Little Red Wagon," as did Garth Brooks in "All-American Kid," his salute to soldiers that was introduced by Taya Kyle, the widow of "American Sniper" subject Chris Kyle. More patriotism, albeit of a subtler variety, came from Alan Jackson, who sang a beautifully stripped-down rendition of his Sept. 11-inspired "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" in remembrance of the victims of 1995's Oklahoma City bombing.
Some acts met the demands of Sunday's gig with jittery intensity, including Sam Hunt in a head-turning "Take Your Time" and Nick Jonas, the former kiddie-pop star who turned up at the ACMs to perform his hit "Chains" with help from the heavily man-scaped pop-country duo Dan + Shay.
Why exactly was Jonas there? It wasn't clear. Perhaps he'd been drafted to fill the slot once occupied by Taylor Swift in the days before she left country for pop. Swift didn't perform Sunday, though she did accept a lifetime-achievement award from her mother, who gave a striking speech about watching "a young girl with very few friends become a young woman with many."
Those were high points. Yet the ACMs felt equally packed with less effective moments, such as Martina McBride's shaky "Independence Day," which seemed to get lost in the stadium's boomy acoustics, and Dierks Bentley's dreary "Riser," which used the space for empty bombast. Florida Georgia Line and Aldean had elaborate pyrotechnics but little personal charisma.
And then there was the grinding, chemistry-free duet between Rascal Flatts and Christina Aguilera, which came complete with gospel choir and drum corps. Was it a Texas-sized spectacle? Sure – it took advantage of the enormous room. But sometimes too much is precisely that.