Male artists may dominate the country charts and radio airplay, but on Wednesday in Nashville, the 13th annual ACM Honors awards show offered a glimpse of an alternative universe where women rule the day.
What did it look like? For starters, the high point of the evening belonged to Miranda Lambert, who received the prestigious Gene Weed Milestone Award for outstanding achievement in country music in the past year.
Back in April, some country fans took note that Jason Aldean was awarded the ACM Artist of the Decade despite the fact he’s won 14 ACMs (granted, including three entertainer of the year awards) to Lambert’s 32 — more than anyone else in history.
Make that 33 with the Milestone Award, and Lambert’s heartfelt speech made it sound like anything but a consolation prize.
“I can’t believe that we get to live all of our dreams and just be part of this awesome community and family, and I’ll never get over it,” she told the crowd packed with artists and other industry insiders at Ryman Auditorium. “Some days I feel like I’ve been doing it for two days and some days I feel like I’ve been doing it for 200 years, but today I feel like I’ve been doing it for two days, and I just want to keep going, and I’m so appreciative that you all are letting me do this.”
Further icing was the fact that Keith Urban, the reigning ACM entertainer of the year, happily took a supporting role as her award presenter and duet partner on Lambert’s signature song, “The House That Built Me.”
Urban reminisced about Lambert being his opening act on his 2005 tour and how he “saw a kindred spirit right away.”
“You followed your muse wherever it went,” Urban said in his tribute. “You followed your muse unapologetically. You made the records you wanted to make … and in the process of all that and defying the trends and all the other crap, you just stayed true to yourself, followed your path and here you are accepting this award with the most ACM awards of all time.”
Lambert returned the favor, telling Urban she is “forever a fan” in an Instagram post following the ceremony.
“Thank you ACM Awards for an awesome night. I love the country music family and Nashville with all my heart. Keith Urban thank you for singing with me and inspiring me for so many years. Forever a fan!” she captioned a series of photos from the night, including a boomerang of husband Brendan McLoughlin stealing a smooch. “And to my hot date thanks for joining me on this crazy cool journey!”
The annual show is dedicated to recognizing special honorees, and Lambert’s time in the spotlight was just one of many moments for women, whether they were recipients, presenters or performers.
Martina McBride, who received the Cliffie Stone Icon Award, had a passing-of-the-torch-song moment as she watched up-and-comers Caylee Hammack and Lauren Alaina deftly conquer two of her hits. Hammack took flight with “A Broken Wing” and Alaina provided the fireworks for “Independence Day.”
In presenting the award, Alaina shared her story of childhood hero worship. “You literally taught me how to sing,” she told McBride. “I would sit in my bedroom and play your CD over and over again and try to hit the high notes, and bless my little heart, I couldn’t do it for a really long time. I’ll never forget the first time I hit the big note in ‘Broken Wing’ … It was like the most joyous day of my life.”
Alaina has since toured with McBride and been mentored by her. “This lady goes to lunch with me and lets me just cry and tells me it’s gonna be okay,” Alaina said. “I don’t know how many little girls get to sit at lunch with their hero, but if I can be that to someone, that would be like the biggest accomplishment of my life.”
“The list goes on and on,” McBride said. “These women paved the way. They kicked down the doors, and they did it with such integrity and authenticity, and that’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Mandrell was actually at the event: Twenty-two years into her retirement, she made a rare public appearance to honor her go-to songwriter, Kye Fleming. One of a small handful of female songwriters in the 1980s, Fleming received a Poet’s Award along with Rodney Crowell and Billy Joe Shaver.
Mandrell, a Hall of Fame member, told the story of Fleming and frequent co-writer Dennis Morgan quizzing her about her childhood growing up in California as a child-prodigy country musician. A couple of days later, Mandrell recalled, “Kye and Dennis came to me and Kye said, ‘We wrote something for you. We want you to listen.’ And they wrote, “I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool.”
Maddie & Tae honored that memory with a proud rendition of the classic song. Before that, Tenille Townes amazed the audience by finding aching poignancy in Mandrell’s bubble-gum-pop-meets-country hit, “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.”
“This just blew me away,” Fleming said after the two re-interpretations.
Trisha Yearwood said she gladly made time to pay tribute to her friend, artist agent Gayle Holcomb, in between filming the next season of her Food Network show, Trisha’s Southern Kitchen. Holcomb, who was honored for her philanthropic work, was among Yearwood’s “biggest encouragers” to record last year’s Sinatra homage, Let's Be Frank.
Though Yearwood said she hadn’t planned to sing, she delivered a stirring impromptu performance off the album of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” that brought the audience to their feet.
The overwhelming female presence kept coming even when men were being honored: With able assistance from bandmate Chris Harris, Ashley McBryde turned in a gritty duet of “You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone,” a tribute to Icon Award recipients Brooks & Dunn (who were on the road and accepted via a pre-recorded video).
“Kix and Ronnie left their fingerprints on my generation, inspiring each of us to be cowboys and cowgirls just like them,” said McBryde, who appears on Hall of Fame inductees’ recent album of collaborations, Reboot.
Hit-maker Shane McAnally honored both Mandrell and Fleming as he accepted the Songwriter of the Year. Growing up, “I was obsessed with Barbara Mandrell,” the Songland co-host confessed. “And as much as I loved Barbara, I didn’t realize the real heroes were behind these songs … and I had no idea because I didn’t know you could write songs the people would sing.”
Today, McAnally said, he’s living out his “wildest dream” writing songs for such stars as Urban, Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Kenny Chesney, Kelsea Ballerini, Thomas Rhett, Dierks Bentley and Midland (who performed McAnally co-writes “Burn Out” and “Make a Little” in tribute).
“When I talk about my wildest dreams, I have to acknowledge the fact that truly beyond my wildest dreams … I really didn’t know you could be in country music if you’re gay,” McAnally said tearfully to thunderous applause. “When I came out to my mom, she was so scared that I wouldn’t get this dream, that this wouldn’t happen for me, and this town has never for a minute made me feel anything but love and support.”
The evening was rounded out with two more awards, also with a feminine touch: Though unable to attend, Musgraves received the Jim Reeves International Award for her contributions to spreading the gospel of country worldwide.