(Yahoo!) - When George Strait wins, everybody wins.
Normally, when Entertainer of the Year is announced, we'd be studying the faces of the losers at the Academy of Country Music Awards to see just how talented they are at pretending to be gratified that the other guy got it. But nominees Luke Bryan, Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, and Blake Shelton didn't have to do a lot of faking in their reaction shots when everyone's favorite Strait man won out. (Some doubted the 61-year-old legend would claim the award decided by popular vote, but George's triumph was expected by others, given the love for his "farewell tour" and a similar win at the CMAs in November.)
"Our hero! Our hero won tonight!" exulted Shelton, wrapping up his co-hosting duties as if he'd forgotten he'd just been shut out.
There was plenty to tweet about, positive and negative, before that feelgood finale. The ACMs packed as much live music into a three-hour telecast as any awards show ever has, thanks to two factors: (a) the near-absence of actual awards, with nary a trophy being given out during the entire first hour, and (b) a lot of the performances lasting only as long as a single verse and chorus.
Beyond the re-coronation of King George, here are the rest of our picks for the night's 10 other memorable moments:
1. Mano y mano legends: Strait salutes Haggard. The ACMs happened to coincide with Merle Haggard's 77th birthday, which found the man who is arguably country's greatest still-living male artist getting a lifetime achievement award. In tribute, Strait sang "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," followed by Miranda Lambert doing "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down." This sampling of Hag helped put the rest of the show in perspective: Imagine the reaction if a contemporary country singer tried releasing a single about being on the lam... or about alcohol not leading to greater happiness.
2. Dierks Bentley and Sheryl Crow duet: a Grammy moment at the ACMs. The Grammys have become renowned lately for unexpected duets, something country awards shows have been slow to pick up and try. But it was a Grammy-worthy moment — at least — when Bentley was joined on "I Hold On," his latest airplay chart-topper, by Crow, who's now a Nashville mainstay. Bentley's single is one of the best and most heartfelt country has had in a long time, and Crow really knows how to find and hold onto a harmony part, in addition to ably taking some of the lead vocals herself.
3. A cameo by "Daft Punk." The monologue by Shelton and co-host Luke Bryan was almost as tame as the one they did last year, characterized by an unwillingness to take even the lightest shot at anyone in the audience. But the hosts scored later on in the show when they came out in motorcycle helmets as the anonymous, Grammy-winning, French EDM duo. "How the hell are you supposed to get lucky in that thing?" asked Bryan, gasping as he took off the headgear. "I couldn't even breathe." We knew it was Bryan all along; we could spot his bright choppers through the visor.
4. Rascal Flatts: utterly flawless... unfortunately. At the top of the show, co-hosts Shelton and Bryan got off a good lip-synching gag, talking about how the Las Vegas-based telecast would celebrate truly live music: "And if you don't like live music, you need to go down the block and see Britney Spears." (Britney's little sister Jamie Lynn was actually in the audience.) The ACMs kept to that vow nearly to the end. But when Rascal Flatts did their new single "Rewind," there was no doubt in anyone's mind that what we were hearing was straight out of the studio. It's not as if Gary LeVox is known for not being able to deliver live, and not as if anyone could use the old excuse about "the choreography is too taxing," when that choreography consisted of LeVox making hand motions emulating rewinding a tape. Maybe there was a last-minute technical snafu that prevented Flatts turning in a live performance? Or, maybe making people think of Memorex was meant to reinforce the metaphor of the song title?
5. Brad Paisley gets just beachy. The Vegas poolside setting was corny, yet effective, as Paisley sang about laughing all the way to the "River Bank." It's about as transparent an attempt at achieving a No. 1 summer single as you can get, but the pun in the title phrase would make it all worthwhile if Paisley's gorgeously pyrotechnic soloing didn't. And as he walked out onto a transparent platform over the pool to shred, it was the first time in a long time we ever wished we were among a bunch of mostly submerged, drunken frat boys on the Strip.
6. Blake goes R&B. Shelton got two performance slots on the show, and the "money" one was supposed to be his duet with Shakira on "Medicine" from her new album. But just as he towered over his fellow "Voice" coach by what looked like about a foot, his vocals were also much louder than hers, and it was hard to tell whether that had to do with her inability to project as much as him or just a mix thing. Anyway, we preferred his other performance, where "Voice" alumnus Gwen Sebastian joined him to harmonize on his own new single, "My Eyes." It was reminiscent of a 1970s/'80s era in which sexy country and slinky rhythm & blues were much more closely related.
7. Miranda gets "Automatic" for the people. The show was short on solo females, with Kacey Musgraves getting a much-deserved Album of the Year win, but no performance slot. So it was up to Lambert to represent in a big way. Anyone who hasn't seen her reduced size recently may have been shocked, and her unusual makeup and styling made her even less recognizable. But the ability to take some familiar country tropes — like lyrics about how everything used to be better — and make something really compelling out of them? That couldn't be more recognizably Miranda.
8. Tim, meet Faith. It shouldn't be a shock at this late date when Faith Hill walks out in the middle of a Tim McGraw song. But since he was introducing a brand-new one — something he's kind of made a tradition of at the ACMs — it felt surprising and welcome anyway. The new single, "Meanwhile Back at Mama's," is similar to Lambert's "Automatic," in that it takes the well-trod country theme of fetishizing the good old days and finds something lovely and true in it. Plus, it can't be overemphasized how well a tux goes with a black hat on the right man, even before his better half brings out the gown glam.
9. Florida Georgia Line overshadowed by bicycles. "This is How We Roll" is one country-lyric trope that is never going to weather well. So we were glad for the distraction of massive pyro and stunt cyclists, with the very life of their drummer seemingly standing in the balance.
10. Lady Mac-beth: a "CMT Crossroads" summit meeting, revived. Lady Antebellum and Stevie Nicks proved an inspired pairing on an edition of "Crossroads" last year, and they revived it here, first with "Golden," then "Rhiannon." No fool, Nicks stepped aside and let Hillary Scott take the sole lead on the "would you stay if she promised you heaven" high notes she can no longer hit herself, while proving a pretty able harmony singer on the rest of their shared tunes. She may have had some practice.
The complete 2014 ACMs winners list is below:
Entertainer of the Year - George Strait
Album of the Year – Kacey Musgraves, "Same Trailer Different Park"
Vocal Group of the Year - The Band Perry
Female Vocalist of the Year - Miranda Lambert
Male Vocalist of the Year - Jason Aldean
Song of the Year - Lee Brice, "I Drive Your Truck"
Single Record of the Year - Miranda Lambert, "Mama's Broken Heart"
New Artist of the Year - Justin Moore
Vocal Duo of the Year - Florida Georgia Line
Video of the Year - Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift & Keith Urban, "Highway Don't Care"
Vocal Event of the Year - Keith Urban & Miranda Lambert, "We Were Us"
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