LAS VEGAS – Everything went to script Sunday night at the Academy of Country Music Awards until the end – when Luke Bryan pulled off an amazing upset and won entertainer of the year.
Bryan beat out some of country music’s top stars, including two-time winner Taylor Swift and overall award leader Miranda Lambert, in an upset that few would have predicted. The 36-year-old Georgia native recently began headlining his first arena tour and was the co-host of this year’s show.
After an emotional speech, co-host and fellow nominee Blake Shelton held Bryan up and joked that he won in his “first and last year as co-host” of the awards.
Shelton shared one award with Lambert, his wife, for “Over You,” the deeply personal song they wrote together. With three other wins – including her fourth straight as female vocalist of the year – Lambert was the night’s most-honored star.
“Over You,” written by the couple about Shelton’s late brother, won song of the year at the Country Music Association Awards last November as well.
“As a songwriter, having your song and your lyrics recognized by your peers is pretty much as good as it gets,” Lambert said. “And I’m so thankful for being in this genre of country music – every single time someone’s nominated, I just cheer, because I love everybody to death. So thank you for accepting me as a songwriter, not just as a singer, because that means the world to me.”
Eric Church won two awards, including album of the year, and was tied with Jason Aldean, Little Big Town and Florida Georgia Line.
Church, this year’s top nominee, also won vocal event of the year for his collaboration with Aldean and Luke Bryan for their collaboration on “The Only Way I Know” and performed his somber but powerful song “Like Jesus Does” with only an acoustic guitar and a backup singer.
“I can’t believe I just met John Fogerty,” Church said as he accepted the album award from the Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman and Lambert. “We should hang out later.”
Aldean, country’s top-selling male act, won male vocalist of the year. Little Big Town had wins for vocal group and video of the year. Florida Georgia Line won for new artist; the group previously won in the new vocal duo/group category.
Bryan is the first male winner of the entertainer of the year award since 2007, when Kenny Chesney won the first fan-voted award. Swift and Carrie Underwood have won two apiece since then.
Husband and wife Shawna and Keifer Thompson continued their feel-good story as Thompson Square won its second straight vocal duo of the year award.
Shawna Thompson gave a shout-out to her mother from stage.
Tears came to her eyes backstage as she explained that her father had recently died and that she wanted to acknowledge her mother during her acceptance speech to support her.
“She’s just having a really hard time,” she said.
The night was full of colorful performances, but the anticipation of Garth Brooks and George Strait performing together overshadowed almost everything else. The two paid tribute to the late Dick Clark, the executive producer of the show since 1979, who died a year ago.
Brooks appeared on stage in a flannel shirt and black cowboy hat with a Fu Manchu to perform his hit “The Dance” before Strait joined him for “The Cowboy Rides Away.”
Reba McEntire introduced the two and paid tribute to Clark, momentarily breaking down as tears appeared in her eyes.
“He would slap me if he saw me crying up here,” she said.
Shelton kicked the show off with his new single “Boys ’Round Here,” a hip-hop-flavored ode to redneck swag. He was joined by Bryan, Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow and Pistol Annies, a trio that includes his wife.
Strait made his first appearance of the night earlier, singing “Give It All We Got Tonight.” Lady Antebellum debuted a new song, “Downtown,” and Charles Kelley finished off the song by rubbing pregnant trio-mate Hillary Scott’s belly. Carrie Underwood stepped out of a black Cadillac parked on stage as she started her song, “Two Black Cadillacs.”
Lambert appeared later with a fiery, diamond-studded rendition of her recent hit “Mama’s Broken Heart.”
John Mayer joined Paisley for a guitar summit on “Beat This Summer,” and Taylor Swift and Keith Urban joined Tim McGraw on stage for “Highway Don’t Care,” which Urban finished off with a scorching guitar solo.