Taylor Swift repeated as the Academy of Country Music's Entertainer of the Year Sunday in Las Vegas, and Miranda Lambert picked up her third win in the Female Vocalist and Album of the Year categories. But trophies aside, the spotlight was on the performers. USA TODAY's Brian Mansfield looks at the evening's most memorable performances.
* * 1/2 out of four: Carrie Underwood, Good Girl
Underwood showed off her rock chops opening the show with her latest single. Her band was dressed in white and black — all the better to highlight Underwood's very short, fringe-covered pink dress.
***: Chris Young, Save Water, Drink Beer
Underwood showed country's pop side with Good Girl, but Young came unashamed of the twang. His rowdy drinking song had a built-in catchphrase for revelers ready for another round.
***: Zac Brown Band, Keep Me in Mind
As hosts of the Mandalay Bay Fan Jam taking place in a separate venue during the broadcast, the Zac Brown Band brought its entire tour set and a Jimmy Buffett/James Taylor influence for its performance.
***: The Band Perry, Postcard From Paris
Four performances in, and the ACMs hadn't so much as read a nomination, but the trio's family harmonies and acoustic-pop sound offered a compelling argument against actually presenting awards.
***: Keith Urban, For You
Urban — making a strong comeback from last year's vocal cord surgery — tapped into some of the same emotions as Jimmy Webb's Glen Campbell hit Galveston. Names of military members who have died in action scrolled behind Urban as he sang the emotional song from the Act of Valor soundtrack.
**½: Blake Shelton, Drink On It
After all the musical energy from the early performances, co-host Shelton's laid-back new single fell a little flat.
**½: Hunter Hayes, Storm Warning
Introduced by Zac Brown as "someone who actually plays on his own records," the 20-year-old guitar-playing New Artist of the Year nominee only got a verse and a chorus of his hit single, but he also wrote the anti-hunger song Here's Hope, which Little Big Town performed as a medley with John Lennon's Imagine.
***: Little Big Town, Imagine/Here's Hope
When it comes to inspiring musical performances, it's hard to go wrong with the Lennon classic and a children's choir. Vocal quartet Little Big Town had both, along with the Hayes-penned Hope, an anthem designed to bring attention to the ACM and ConAgra Foods' Child Hunger Ends Here initiative.
**½: Jason Aldean, Fly Over States
Aldean — who won Vocal Event of the Year and Single of the Year for his Don't You Wanna Stay duet with Kelly Clarkson— performed his heartland tribute on a stage rimmed with red lights designed to make it look like a runway.
**1/2: Brantley Gilbert, Country Must Be Country Wide.
Gilbert had to sing a shortened version of his hit, but he still managed to work in references to Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Chris LeDoux.
***1/2: Eric Church, Springsteen.
Church's new single doesn't sound a thing like the guy who inspired the title (and may not even actually be inspired by The Boss), but it's a compelling song about the way one artist's music can become the soundtrack for a relationship. Plus, Church is a superstar in the making.
* ** 1/2: Lady Antebellum, Dancing Away With My Heart.
Not long after accepting their Vocal Group of the Year award from the members of KISS, the trio showed why they deserved the title. Their subdued love song, performed on a smoky stage with blue lighting, featured some of the strongest vocals and tightest harmonies of the night.
**: Scotty McCreery, Water Tower Town.
It's hard to get excited about the severely shortened versions of the new artist nominee songs. Even though he'd win the award later, McCreery's performance essentially served to segue into the singer's introduction of Brad Paisley, with whom McCreery is currently touring.
**1/2: Brad Paisley, Camouflage.
Paisley's vocal was mixed lower than his guitar for much of his performance. That was OK, because Paisley's song about the many practical uses of his favorite fashion pattern is kind of silly, but he's a Fender-picking beast.
**1/2: Rascal Flatts with Steve Martin.
In what might have been the only two-banjo performance slot in network-television history, the bluegrass-picking comedian joined the trio for their ode to the five-string instrument. But Martin was seriously under-utilized: He didn't even get the solo. Still, the song gave the ACM audience the chance to give a standing ovation the late banjo legend Earl Scruggs, who died Wednesday.
**: Toby Keith, Red Solo Cup.
Keith performed the song surrounded by fans, all brandishing -- what else? -- red Solo cups. There's a bit of sly Roger Miller-influenced humor in this song. But it still sounds better when you've had a few beers.
**1/2: Sara Evans, My Heart Can't Tell You No.
Evans, up for Female Vocalist of the Year, brought the 1988 Rod Stewart tune to the country market. And it kind of fits: Co-writer Dennis Morgan also has penned hits for the likes of Ronnie Milsap and Barbra Mandrell.
***1/2: Kenny Chesney & Tim McGraw, Feel Like a Rock Star.
The two singers, who will tour stadiums together this summer, debuted their new single, a party anthem that's sure to be a highlight of their encores. It was also one of the night's better performances.
* * *: Miranda Lambert, Over You
The three-time Female Vocalist of the Year's latest single is a powerful song inspired by the car accident that killed husband Blake Shelton's brother. Too bad Lambert had to struggle to overcome problems with her in-ear monitors.
***½: Zac Brown Band w/Brad Paisley,Whiskey's Gone
This collaboration showcased the fierce picking chops of two of the best live acts in the country business right now. And Paisley sporting one of Brown's trademark wool caps on stage was priceless.
*: Martina McBride and Pat Monahan, Marry Me.
The ACMs have never shied from gimmicks, but they topped themselves by staging a real, on-stage wedding during the middle of the song, bringing up the preacher's microphone during instrumental passages. The couple, who fell in love with each other after the deaths of their first spouses, had a touching story, and McBride and Monahan sang well, but the segment still came across as tacky.
**: Luke Bryan, I Don't Want This Night to End.
Bouncing around in tight jeans and a white T-shirt, Bryan was a crowd-pleaser, for sure. But he's a better act than this performance showed.
***: Lionel Richie and Blake Shelton, You Are.
Co-host (and Male Vocalist of the Year winner) Shelton redeemed himself from his earlier Drink On It flop by taking the lead on Richie's You Are to close the show. Shelton and Richie recorded the song together for Richie's new Tuskegee album. The show-closing performance also served as a preview of CBS' tribute to Richie, which will tape Monday night in Las Vegas and air April 13.