Jason Aldean’s Entertainer of the Year, but Chris Stapleton’s the Big Winner at the ACM Awards

Vonn Miller looks on as Chris Stapleton accepts ACM Song of the Year; Trae Patton/CBS

It was Little Big Town‘s Kimberly Schlapman who said it best at the 51st Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, held Sunday night in Las Vegas. Accepting the Vocal Group of the Year trophy with her bandmates, Kimberly joked, “Thanks, Chris Stapleton, for not being a vocal group!”  Because that category was one of the few Chris didn’t win last night.

In a repeat of his sweep of the CMA Awards in November, Stapleton scooped the trophies for Male Vocalist of the Year, New Male Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year for Traveller and, surprisingly, Song of the Year for “Nobody to Blame.”  Chris seemed genuinely surprised at winning that last category, saying in a reference to Little Big Town, “I thought for sure we were gonna get ‘Girl Crush’-ed on this one!” 

In fact, Stapleton’s winning night was foretold by co-hosts Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley, who devoted much of their monologue to joking about everyone in country music trying to take credit for Chris’ “overnight” success.  Both Luke and Dierks claimed responsibility, since Chris co-wrote Luke’s hit “Drink a Beer” and sang on Dierks’ album Riser, but then various artists stood up in the audience and claimed they made Chris a star — including Jason Aldean, Charles Kelly, and Carrie Underwood, who showed off a sequinned Chris Stapleton T-shirt which she claimed to have purchased in 1978, the year Chris was born.  When Luke asked anyone else in the audience who wanted to take credit for Chris’ success to stand up, the entire arena got to its collective feet.

This was Dierks’ first year co-hosting the ACMs after years of “Bluke” — the team of Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan.  In fact, Blake showed up unexpectedly to duet with Luke on the night’s first song, “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day,” and then wished the new duo of “Lierks” luck.  Well, sort of: Blake told Dierks, “He’s all yours” before turning to Luke and saying, “You’re a “dumba**.”

In non-Chris Stapleton winners news, Miranda Lambert nabbed her seventh Female Vocalist trophy, and Thomas Rhett won his first-ever ACM Award for Single of the Year for “Die a Happy Man.”  “Holy crap!” he exclaimed, wiping his mouth. “My heart is beating a million miles a minute and I have lipstick on my lips from kissing my beautiful wife!” After thanking a bunch of people, he remembered, “Holy crap….God!” and then added, laughing, “That’s a bad sentence!”

Meanwhile, Jason Aldean was a surprise winner for the ACM’s biggest prize — Entertainer of the Year — which he’d never won before. “I was just starting to think this wasn’t in the cards for me,” he said, adding, “I may be rough around the edges a little bit, but I love this business, I love the people in it and I love the fans that support it…this has been one of the best nights of my professional career.”

As usual, though, the ACMs weren’t so much about the actual awards as they were about stuffing as many performances into three hours as humanly possible: there were 22 musical performances in all.  Many artists used the show as an opportunity to debut new material, such as Kenny Chesney with his new track “Noise,” Jason Aldean with “When the Lights Come On,” Charles Kelley with “Lonely Girl” and Carrie Underwood with “Church Bells.”

The show made a big deal of the non-country stars who appeared: Nick Jonas played guitar and sang with Kelsea Ballerini on “Peter Pan,” while ZZ Top‘s Billy Gibbons joined Miranda Lambert for a rendition of that band’s classic, “Tush.”  But no performance was teased more than Katy Perry‘s collaboration with Dolly Parton, who Katy called “my personal hero, and a strong woman.” 

Wearing a red satin cowgirl dress and pink and yellow boots, Katy noted that she and Dolly had several things in common: they both had relatives who were preachers, they both grew up singing and playing guitar in church and, the buxom pop star cracked, “We’re known for having some of the biggest….songs in our fields.”  She and Dolly joined forces for “Coat of Many Colors,” “Jolene” and “9 to 5.”

There were also two tributes: a standing ovation for late ACM winner Joey Feek of Joey + Rory, who passed away March 4, and a clever salute to some late rock legends, courtesy of Eric Church.  While performing “Record Year,” Eric dropped in snippets of songs by David Bowie, The Eagles’ Glenn Frey, heavy metal legend Lemmy of Motorhead and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, all of whom died in the past few months.

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.