ACM Awards 2021: 5 Best Performances From the 56th Annual Event

by Jim Casey

With more than 20 performances across multiple Nashville locations, the 56th ACM Awards on April 18 had a little something for everyone. And that was the point. The Academy of Country Music punctuated its unofficial theme of “inclusivity” with an exclamation point.

Cross-genre collaborations? Check. Show-stopping solos? Check. Nostalgic throwbacks? Check.

As co-host Keith Urban said to close the show, “Country music is a huge, big family where everyone is welcome.” The ACM Awards did a pretty good job of making us believe that, better than any other COVID-era awards show.

Let’s take a look at the night’s 5 Best Performances.

First, a handful of thoughts.

5. Ashley McBryde – ‘Martha Divine’ at ACM Awards

Ashley McBryde is a superstar. Unfortunately, casual country fans just don’t get the measure of McBryde she merits from country radio (don’t get me started on Cam). While the majority of the night’s performances took place at three iconic Nashville venues—Grand Ole Opry House, Ryman Auditorium, and Bluebird Cafe—props to the ACMs for unleashing Ashley at Nashville’s Bridge Building. You can’t stop her. You can’t contain her. Ashley’s 2020 single, “Martha Divine,” rocks. But you won’t hear that on country radio. Fortunately, you got to hear it on the ACM Awards.

4. Dierks Bentley & The War and Treaty – ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’

Was the ACM Awards’ most authentic country performance actually a bluegrass version of a U2 cover? Yes, yes it was. And Dierks Bentley teamed with duo The War and Treaty at Nashville’s The Station Inn to make it happen. The War and Treaty (husband and wife Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount) are the soulful darlings of the Americana genre. Dierks is the darling of country music awards shows (nominations only). Add ’em together on a mandolin-soaked cover of U2’s “Pride” (Dierks covered it on his 2010 bluegrass album) and you get one hell of a musical menagerie that should stay on repeat.

3. Alan Jackson – ‘Drive (For Daddy Gene)’ & ‘You Will Always Be My Baby’

If science allowed it and his wife agreed, Alan Jackson should be cryogenically preserved a la Austin Powers, with a sign that reads “break glass in event of awards show.” AJ singing “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” at the ACM Awards is a nostalgic bell ringer on every level (p.s. any writer who uses “all the feels” when describing this performance should be banned from a keyboard until he/she purchases a hardbound thesaurus). AJ doubled down on “all the feels” (I own a hardbound thesaurus) by coupling “Drive” with his new song, “You’ll Always Be My Baby,” (inspired by his daughters’ weddings) from his upcoming album, Where Have You Gone (May 14). AJ took us full circle in four minutes.

2. Carrie Underwood & CeCe Winans – Gospel Medley

Stay with me here, for a minute. Carrie singing a medley (“Amazing Grace, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “How Great Thou Art”) from her new gospel album, My Savior, is Carrie at her “country” finest. Give Carrie a mic and watch her dazzle vocally. That’s country. Adding gospel great CeCe Winans raised the roof off the church at the ACM Awards. This medley was amazing . . . and done with grace. That’s no easy task, especially at an awards show.

1. Eric Church – ‘Bunch of Nothing’ at ACM Awards

If Eric’s scorching rendition of his new song, “Bunch of Nothing,” didn’t get you primed and pumped for the return of country music festivals and tours, we can’t help ya.