If you thought the ACM Awards were going to be the highlight of your prime-time country music month, the best is actually yet the come. The Academy of Country Music got the stars to stick around an extra night at the MGM Grand to tape a two-hour special, "Girls' Night Out: Superstar Women of Country," which airs on CBS April 22. And if you had to award a trophy to just one of these shows, this'd be the one.
The format had honorees Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Reba, Martina McBride, Jennifer Nettles, and the Judds all being serenaded by a male singer doing a cover of one of their most famous songs, followed by the two acts teaming up for a duet (with one interesting exception). The results were, across the board, DVR-worthy.
The full rundown, if you don't mind spoilers before the airdate:
Blake covers Miranda. At the start of the evening, Shelton briefly reprised his hosting duties from the night before ("I got a gig by myself, Reba," he said, imitating her cackle). Running down who was on the lineup, he pointed out, "The pressure is on. I'm going to be singing one of Miranda Lambert's songs. But I know, as my future wife, you'll be able to cut my sack—I mean, cut me some slack." The audience howled. "Y'all know that's true!" Somehow, we doubt that's going to make the final, er, cut.
Mr. Shelton then serenaded the soon-to-be Mrs. with her hit "Famous in a Small Town," following a video that showed Lambert's family back in Lindale, Texas talking up her sassy virtues. But, in a departure from the format everyone else followed, there was no Shelton/Lambert duet. Instead, Miranda brought out two singer/songwriter friends, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, announcing, "I started a band, for a backup plan. I've got a new band called Pistol Annies"—and the three firebrands traded quietly feisty verses on a brand new song, the slow-simmering "Hell on Heels."
Vince covers Carrie. Vince Gill turned in a sterling "Jesus, Take the Wheel," with Underwood sitting stageside and throwing her hands up in the air at the appropriate moment. "You opened the floodgates," a teary Underwood told her homage-giver. They then teamed up for a "How Great Thou Art" that got the night's most resounding ovation. Carrie has been doing a medley of those two songs on tour, but breaking the hymn out on its own couldn't have been a smarter turn, with Vince providing impeccable harmonies and an effectively bluesy guitar solo, even if she got in the last roof-rattling lick. Several numbers earned standing ovations, but "How Great Thou Art" was the only song to win one mid-tune.
Before singing "Jesus, Take the Wheel," Gill said, "I wasn't sure which of your 13 No. 1 hits to sing tonight. It was a tossup with 'Cowboy Casanova,' but thank God this one won out." When there were some loving shoutouts from guys in the crowd for Carrie, Vince quipped, "Be careful, boys. She married a hockey player."
John Fogerty covers the Judds. In contrast to the ACM Awards the night before, where the inclusion of non-country acts like Rihanna and Steven Tyler inevitably drew polarized reactions, there were no genre outsiders at "Girls' Night Out"—unless you include the ex-Creedence frontman. He was eager to be counted as part of the club, mentioning the two "pure country" albums he recorded under the name of Blue Ridge Rangers. He serenaded the duo with "Rockin' with the Rhythm of the Rain," then had Wynonna join him for "Proud Mary."
Ronnie Dunn covers Sugarland. At the start of the proceedings, Shelton warned Jennifer Nettles to watch out for Dunn when they sang together: "Be careful, 'cause his hair could get in your mouth." That didn't happen, thankfully, when the members or ex-members of country's two most successful duos of the last decade teamed up as a one-time duo on a lovely rendition of "Let Him Fly," the Patty Griffin ballad made famous by the Dixie Chicks. Prior to that, Dunn did "Stay"—which, as pointed out, had in 2007 become the only ACM song of the year to be both sung and written by a woman.
Little Big Town covers Martina. The first standing O of the night came for the vocal quarter's interpretation of the battered-wife revenge story "Independence Day," with Philip Sweet singing lead on the verses, in generally keeping with the men-singing-to-women format of each segment's opening number. The former tourmates then teamed up for one of McBride's favorite country-rockers, "When Will I Be Loved," as learned via Linda Ronstadt.
Rascal Flatts cover Reba. Backed by the house band of all-star Nashville pros, the trio rocked it out with a swinging "Why Haven't I Heard From You," then had Ms. Red join them for "The Heart Won't Lie."
Everybody loves Loretta. Loretta Lynn was supposed to be on hand but explained in a taped segment that her doctor forbade it after recent knee surgery. In advance of the final group-sing of "Coal Miner's Daughter," Loretta told a little bit about the writing of the song, which was originally much more of an epic than what the public eventually heard. Her producer, Owen Bradley, told her to cut it down. "Owen said, 'Loretta, there's only been one 'El Paso' [Marty Robbins' legendarily long classic], and there's never gonna be another, so get in the other room and take four or five verses off. So I did, and that took me longer than it did to write the song." Ironically, the tune could have used some extra verses now to accommodate all the superstars who collaborated on it this night, but repeating some lyrics allowed all the women to get a few lines in.
Three other MIA ladies get their moment, too. A medley had Sara Evans belting out "Stand By Your Man" in tribute to the late Tammy Wynette, the Band Perry doing "Walkin' After Midnight" in honor of the late Patsy Cline, and the Jane Dear Girls performing "Honky Tonk Angels" in homage to the still very-much-living Kitty Wells, the first woman to ever have a No. 1 country hit.
[Photos by Julie Jacobson/AP]