This weekend was all about the ACMs for most country stars and fans, but a select handful of performers came out to honor an even more venerable three-letter acronym—USO—with an outdoor concert at the Nellis Air Force Base just north of Las Vegas. Even ACMs co-host Blake Shelton took a break from his hosting preparation duties to take part in Saturday's USO show.
Shelton may not have had preparation on his mind, anyway. "They told me when I got here [to Vegas] Thursday morning that I would have Saturday night off," he told the crowd of soldiers and their families. "That's today, isn't it? So I'm gonna dedicate this song to myself right here," he said, launching into "All About Tonight," the hit that begins. "Don't bother telling me what I got coming in the morning, I already know..."
Host Storme Warren noted that Shelton had been out the night before at a bachelor party held by some fellow male stars at Vegas' Studio 54. Pace yourself, Blake! You don't want to be the James Franco to Reba's Anne Hathaway.
Other performers at the USO show included Luke Bryan, Montgomery Gentry, Sunny Sweeney, Craig Morgan, Miss Willie Brown, Little Big Town, and Brett Eldredge.
Bryan said backstage before going on that he "got to meet Donald Rumsfeld, which was pretty much off the charts. That was probably one of the coolest things that ever happened to me." Unfortunately, Rumsfeld was not in his seat but out schmoozing when Bryan later performed his new single "Country Girl, Shake It for Me," so we were denied the chance to find out whether the former defense secretary would sing along or not.
One clear highlight was the performance by Miss Willie Brown—an up-and-coming female duo who just released their first EP—of the ballad "Freeland," a song about a military wife waiting for her man, with the key lines: "I die for my country, too, every night that I wait for you.... If there's a light in your sky where you're fighting tonight, that's me fighting for you."
"It's very rare that you get to perform a song in front of who it was written for," said co-frontwoman Amanda Watkins before taking the stage. Afterward, Watkins said, "I had to close my eyes to get through my verse, after I looked out at the front row and saw some of the women grasping their man's hands."
Shelton took a more beligerent—but equally military-friendly—tone when he introduced one of his recent hits. "I had mentioned to a couple tree-huggers out there [in L.A.] that I was gonna come out here and do an NRA Country skeet shoot," he said, referring to an expedition some of the stars took at a gun range earlier in the morning. "They said, 'Man, you're gonna go out and shoot guns? You're a celebrity now. Don't you think that's a little irresponsible to be shooting guns? You're supposed to be a role model.' I want to dedicate this song to that person. Because if you don't think that I ought to be shooting guns and bragging about my right to keep and bear arms, then you can"—you guessed it, if you know Shelton's ouevre—"kiss my country ass, man."
Some of the performers seemed to be doing combat duty against the wind. At times the gusts seemed ready to topple the tents and booths, if not stage, but if there's anyone you can count on to nail things down in a desert wind, it ought to be the armed forces.
Still, the wind had Little Big Town's skirt-wearing Karen Fairchild worrying after their first number, "I'm so worried about showing y'all stuff that you're not supposed to see that I can't hardly sing."
Dierks Bentley—who headlined the first annual pre-ACMs show at the base last year—was not on the bill, but did hang out backstage, fresh from the aforementioned NRA Country skeet shoot.