Even at their best, awards shows can seem somewhat contrived, and Bryan’s reaction to winning the ACM’s top prize — a fan-voted category — appeared to be a rare moment of genuine humility.
“I don’t know what to say, guys,” the Georgia native said during a tearful acceptance speech. “Thank you, guys, so much, fans, for doing this to me. Thank you so much for making my life what it is. What I always wanted to be was just a country singer that got to ride on a tour bus and show up at a new stage and play music every night.”
Bryan thanked his family, producer, management company and, of course, country radio, but he also showed his gratitude to other country artists who helped him launch his career.
“Everybody that I’ve opened up for … Jason Aldean, Tim McGraw, Kenny [Chesney] — all the guys that I’ve watched from the side of the stage and tried to become a better entertainer,” he said. “I’ll tell you what. I swear to God, every time I step onstage, it is a blessing to me to play for fans. … This is the defining moment of my life, and it means to the world to me. I will never take it for granted. I love you so much. Thank you for letting me host, too.”
For the first time, Bryan co-hosted the ACM Awards show with longtime friend Blake Shelton.
“It’s OK, buddy,” Shelton said while giving him a hug. “Congratulations, buddy. You won entertainer of the year in your first — and last — year of hosting the ACM Awards.”
“The last time this happened, you didn’t get a chance to talk,” Shelton said in accepting the song of the year trophy. “And you’re not gonna have a chance either this time. I’ll tell y’all something. I’ve learned so much from this human being standing next to me, so many things about myself.
“She blows me away. As far as standing here right now, I used to think I was a decent songwriter until I started hanging around with her. She taught me how to really write a good song, and this is proof of it. Thank you so much, baby. I love you.”
Lambert saved her remarks for her acceptance speech for the single of the year award.
“I didn’t know what to say about song of the year because my husband was about to make me bawl, and I always bawl, so I was trying to hold it together,” she said. “As a songwriter, having your songs and your lyrics be recognized by your peers is pretty much as good as it gets.
“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. Thank you for accepting me as a songwriter, not just a singer and performer, because that means the world to me.”
Lambert became even more emotional in accepting the female vocalist award.
“Last night, a huge dream of mine came true because I went from being a little girl singing into a hairbrush to watching Shania Twain with Faith Hill and Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson,” she said. “And I cried all night because I will never not be a fan of these beautiful women.”
As for the musical performances, the highlight for older country fans was the collaboration between George Strait and Garth Brooks, but at least two other performances underscored the reality that rap may play a greater role in the country mainstream.
Strait and Brooks performed during a tribute to the late Dick Clark, the longtime producer of the ACM Awards. Brooks continues to keep a relatively low profile these days despite the success of his recent tenure in a one-man show in Las Vegas, but his delivery of “The Dance” proved he has lost none of his vocal skills or charisma. The collaboration between Brooks and Strait came during the latter’s performance of “The Cowboy Rides Away.” Earlier in the evening, Strait performed his current single, “Give It All We Got Tonight.”
The rap influence was evident when Shelton opened the show with “Boys ‘Round Here” with assistance from Bryan, Sheryl Crow, the Pistol Annies and — on guitar — Brad Paisley. Aldean, one of the first country artists to successfully embrace rap elements, underscored his technique on “1994.”
Other collaborations included Paisley’s “Outstanding in Our Field” (with Hunter Hayes and Dierks Bentley) and “Beat This Summer” (with John Mayer). McGraw performed “Highway Don’t Care” with Taylor Swift on vocals and Keith Urban on guitar.
Hunter Hayes performed “I Want Crazy” and then welcomed Stevie Wonder to the stage to perform the Motown legend’s “Sir Duke.” After Bryan accepted the entertainer of the year award, he and Shelton provided background vocals as Wonder closed the show with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).”
Other performers included Bryan (“Crash My Party”), Chesney (“Pirate Flag” ), Church (“Like Jesus Does” ), Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart” ), Shelton (“Sure Be Cool If You Did” ), Florida Georgia Line (“Cruise” ), Little Big Town (“Your Side of the Bed”), Kelly Clarkson (“Don’t Rush”), The Band Perry (“Done” ), Brantley Gilbert (“More Than Miles” ), Jana Kramer (“Whiskey” ) and Lady Antebellum (“Downtown” ).
During a segment calling attention to the philanthropic ACM Lifting Lives program, Jewel sang a mash-up of her “Hands” combined with “Fill a Heart,” an original song written by singer-songwriter Tori Kelly.Check out more coverage from the ACM Awards.