CMA Awards: Chris Stapleton’s Big Night

Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan Says His Friend's Wins Are "So Uplifting"

The night didn’t really belong to Luke Bryan, and he knew it.

Even as the singer accepted the top honor as entertainer of the year at Wednesday night’s (Nov. 4) CMA Awards in Nashville, he nodded toward the story of the night: Chris Stapleton, the long-haired, bearded singer who is not a member of the bro country pack.

Oh sure, Bryan thanked the typicals: Friends. Family. The Lord. Jesus. “Everyone in heaven for looking out for me,” but he couldn’t help but nod to the big story the fans in Bridgestone Arena and on ABC-TV witnessed Wednesday night.

“Watching Chris Stapleton have a night like this is so uplifting,” said Bryan, before bragging about an industry that gave both he and Stapleton major kudos.

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“This is the best business in the world with the best people,” said Bryan, the hot ticket who almost didn’t escape the big bear hug of Garth Brooks as he made it to the stage for his awards victory, the finale of the night.

Meanwhile, Stapleton spent the night chipping away, making his mark on a country music fan base (and the rest of America) who may have only known him before as the Grizzly Adams of the music world, a big, burly and hairy man who not only took three major awards, but also showed the most emotion of anyone during the evening’s festivities.

Not long after Bocephus – Hank Williams Jr. – belted out his mentor Waylon Jennings’ 1976 hit “Are You Ready for the Country” to open the show, it began to be apparent that the crowd was not only ready for the country, but ready for a different type of country. His pairing onstage with Eric Church is the first single released from Williams’ upcoming It’s About Time album.

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That different flavor of country was honored throughout the evening, and Stapleton grew more and more excited each time. The Kentucky native seemed amazed when he picked up the award for new artist of the year. A throwback to the outlaw days or perhaps a look ahead into the more diverse world of country music, Stapleton could not find the words to express his gratitude.

“I don’t know what to say. Thank you very much. I’ve worked a lot of years,” he said, humbly holding one of three CMA trophies he’d pick up during a show that was heavy on rocking guitars.

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A while later, he may have thought his night was capped off when he took the album of the year honor for his critically acclaimed and very real Traveller,

“Thank you to my wife, all the girls workin’ in the office. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to think,” he said.

By the time the show headed toward the end of its third hour, Stapleton’s name was hollered out again as male vocalist of the year, surpassing the more-recognizable stars like Dierks Bentley, Bryan, Church and Blake Shelton.

“Whoo-oo. Well, it’s gonna be a party tonight,” he said before letting down his guard with a very personal anecdote that demonstrated that Bryan wasn’t alone in having people watch out for him in heaven.

“About two years ago, I lost my dad,” he said, adding that he made the Traveller album by thinking about kinds of songs his father liked.

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“It’s unbelievable. I’m not going to take it lightly,” the jubilant newcomer-turned-top-male-act said, thanking everyone from his wife who “pushes me to be the best I can be,” as well as just about everyone he ever met, including his cousins in Kentucky.

The last group he thanked perhaps illustrates just how far Stapleton has come.

Stapleton said he wanted to “thank the six people who came to see me playing in a basement of some bar.”

While he said he wouldn’t take anything for those nights, he added that maybe now he’ll get some bigger gigs.

Stapleton, it should be noted, also stole the show among all the special crossover events and pairings when he took the stage with megastar Justin Timberlake, who has traveled a long path from his boy band days to become one of the biggest names in music (and Hollywood, for that matter.)

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The two started out with a blistering country take on George Jones’ classic “Tennessee Whiskey,” which allowed both the new star and the more-accustomed to center-stage Timberlake to swap lines and demonstrate their vocal abilities.

After asking rhetorically if he could put a bit of his hometown Memphis on display, Timberlake led the way in a Beale Street worthy rendition of “Drink You Away.”

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During the two song set, the duo easily played off each other’s vocal strengths as this unlikely pairing not only stole the night but likely had some Music Row exec wondering if a Stapleton-Timberlake duets album might just be a ticket to ride to riches.

As usual, the show, emceed by the charming pairing of an intentionally-goofy Brad Paisley and a stunning Carrie Underwood, was filled with laughter. And a few grimaces.

A sort of Hee Haw-worthy highlight was the show’s Star Wars– flavored opening send-up featuring a variety of country artists in light-sabre-rattling uniforms. Paisley and Underwood had a bit of fun with William Shatner — Capt. James T. Kirk from the Star Trek TV shows and movies — appearing as a Storm Trooper from that rival movie franchise that is expected to blow up box offices when its newest installment is released later this year.

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Shatner excused himself from the stage by saying he was going “to boldly go to the gift lounge” where celebs collect their swag. “May the force be with you,” he said, as he exited.

Miranda Lambert’s emotional acceptance of her female vocalist honor included a not-veiled reference to the tabloid-grabbing divorce from Blake Shelton (who also performed on the show).

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“Hi, guys. Thank you so much. I appreciate it. I needed a bright spot this year,” she said.

But even Little Big Town’s estrogen-on-estrogen hit “Girl Crush,” the song and single of the year that propelled them to vocal group honors, couldn’t take away from the fact it was Stapleton’s night.

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And those big stages are not far in the future.

The show that began with Hank Jr. asking “Are You Ready for the Country?” ended with a clear indication that America really is ready for Chris Stapleton.

More coverage of the 49th annual CMA Awards.

View photos of the 49th annual CMA Awards red carpet.

View photos of the 49th annual CMA Awards show.

View photos of the 49th annual CMA Awards press room.

Tim Ghianni is a freelance writer and author based in Nashville. He also continues his role as “journalist-in-residence” at Lipscomb University, where he has worked seven years.