Seeing concerts during the weekend of the Academy of Country Music Awards can be a bit like playing connect the dots. Last Thursday night, I went to the House of Blues to see Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles, with opening act Brandy Clark. Clark is a talented singer-songwriter whose debut album, 12 Stories, was one of the most acclaimed country releases of last year. She’s also co-written songs for other country artists, including Miranda Lambert’s hit “Mama’s Broken Heart,” which she performed on Thursday with a surprise appearance by the song’s co-writer, fellow country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves.
Earlier that night, Musgraves had performed at Red Rock as part of radio station 95.5 The Bull’s annual Guitar Pull charity concert, which also featured Sheryl Crow, among others. On Friday night, I went to the Downtown Container Park to see a headlining performance by Crow, the first major concert at the Downtown shopping/eating/entertainment complex. Crow’s opening act was young country singer Charlie Worsham, who also joined Crow to play guitar and sing harmony on a couple songs. That afternoon, Worsham had performed on the second stage at the ACM Party for a Cause Festival, which was held in a parking lot across from the Linq (not, as promotions seemed to indicate, at an outdoor venue in the mall itself).
I headed over to the Linq on Saturday for the second day of Party for a Cause, headlined by superstar Keith Urban. Urban had hinted that Lambert would be joining him onstage (the pair’s duet, “We Were Us,” was nominated for Vocal Event of the Year), but she didn’t end up making an appearance. His only guest was Jaren Johnston of The Cadillac Three, who joined Urban for “Raise ’em Up,” a song he co-wrote and that Urban sings with Eric Church on his recent album Fuse. Then on Sunday, Urban and Crow were both featured performers on the ACM Awards telecast.
Unlike the days surrounding the National Finals Rodeo, when country shows of varying types dot the city, the ACM weekend is tightly focused on a specific type of mainstream country that wins awards on TV. It’s closer to middle-of-the-road rock than traditional country, and these days is overwhelmingly dominated by men (of the 25 acts on the main Party for a Cause bill, only three were women).
On Thursday at the House of Blues, Nettles professed her love for ’70s radio, and it was easy to hear that influence in the songs she performed from her solo album That Girl. Mainstream country stars seem to have consistently mediocre tastes in other genres, and Nettles covered Ambrosia, Bob Seger and a snippet of Barry Manilow in her set (along with Imagine Dragons). Crow, who started out as a rock act, has been embraced by country radio, but the songs she performed from her recent country-approved album Feels Like Home sounded almost indistinguishable from her past hits. She closed her set with a straightforward version of Led Zeppelin’s classic-rock staple “Rock and Roll.”
Urban, who typically plays arenas, gave the most expansive performance I saw over the weekend, playing for an hour and 45 minutes in front of thousands at the makeshift outdoor venue (which had both poor sightlines and a terribly bass-heavy sound mix). The guitar virtuoso displayed impressive musicianship and a winning rapport with the audience, seating a fan onstage in a recliner as he sang an acoustic version of “Raining on Sunday” to her and performing multiple times from within the crowd. His encore included a stripped-down piano version of REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You”; during ACM weekend, all the dots eventually connected back to classic rock.