It’s Chris Stapleton’s Night at the ACM Awards

Jason Aldean Expresses Sincere Surprise in His Own Entertainer of the Year Win

In a comedy bit scripted for the beginning of Sunday night’s (April 3) Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, everyone from Dierks Bentley to Thomas Rhett to Carrie Underwood and beyond took credit for the fact that, as Luke Bryan put it, Chris Stapleton’s career “is blowing up.”

But, of course, the one who is most responsible for the hot streak is Stapleton, the super-successful songwriter-turned-scruffy-and-soulful superstar.

While the big honor of the night, entertainer of the year, went to Jason Aldean, who called Sunday’s awards in Vegas “one of the best nights of my professional career” after admitting he didn’t think this top award was “in the cards for me,” the ACMs clearly belonged to Stapleton.

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Stapleton, who similarly dominated the Country Music Association Awards in the autumn, already had one award in his pocket entering Sunday’s show at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. He, Kelsea Ballerini and Old Dominion had been singled out as best new male vocalist, female vocalist and group, respectively, in honors handed out a couple of weeks ago.

But the first big indication of how the actual awards night was going to go came when he was called to the stage to accept — with co-writers Barry Bales and Ronnie Bowman — the song of the year trophies for “Nobody to Blame.”

“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” he said, after taking this first award of the night. “I thought sure we were gonna get ‘Girl Crushed’ on this,” he said, referring to Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” song, which was one of the contenders in the category.

Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town later pretty much played right into the theme of the night when she and her “Girl Crush” cohorts took the stage to accept vocal group honors.

“Thank you, Chris Stapleton for not being a group,” she said, after she and the rest Little Big Town did their traditional round of “thank yous” for their own award.

Stapleton himself was even in awe, though, when country megastar Garth Brooks — performing in Ottawa, Canada — presented him, via satellite feed, the album of the year award for Traveller.

“Unbelievable,” said Stapleton. “Garth Brooks just gave me an award from Iowa, I think.”

Iowa, Ottawa, they rhyme and it really didn’t matter to the star-struck younger star and man of the hour. For his part in the award, Traveller co-producer Dave Cobb had the singer (and co-producer) at the top of his list of thank yous.

The theme continued when Stapleton seemed even more stunned when named male vocalist of the year. Right after that honor was announced, Stapleton hugged his friend (and competitor for this award) Eric Church, one of the many artists the bearded singer from Paintsville, Kentucky, thanked for helping him along the way.

“Thank you. Ummm. There’s so many people to thank,” said Stapleton when he stood on the stage with the award. After running through a string of names, he struck on one he knew he had to thank: “My wife. She makes me sound better. She makes me look better.”

Others, of course, did take their turns picking up awards. Female vocalist of the year Miranda Lambert used her turn to spread praise around, particularly among the female artists she had watched perform on stage during the evening.

“I love to see a bunch of country girls shining,” she said.

In addition to that honor, Lambert also won for vocal event of the year (awarded pre-broadcast) for “Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” featuring Little Big Town and produced by Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainlay and Glenn Worf.

Perhaps the best reaction to an award though came from Thomas Rhett, whose “Die a Happy Man” (produced by Dann Huff and Jesse Frasure) was named single record of the year.

After admitting his heart basically was beating out of his chest and that his lips were decorated with his wife’s lipstick — from a congratulatory smooch — he said, in joy, “Holy crap. God,” quickly verbally slapping himself. “That’s a bad sentence,” he added.

Dolly Parton, who performed some of her hits with Katy Perry, picked up her previously announced Tex Ritter Award for her smash-hit TV movie Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, based on the original song inspired by her childhood. The honor is named for Ritter, the showman, country music pioneer, movie cowboy and Grand Ole Opry star.

Parton said the award, given to a movie or show that features or promotes country music, was especially valuable since she knew Ritter, who died in 1974.

Still, it was Stapleton’s night.

That fact was even emphasized in a commercial for Dodge Ram trucks, whose storyline had him driving that pickup to his hometown in Kentucky. The commercial aired after his typically soul-driven performance of “Fire Away,” toward the end of the night.

The character of the man and his night was best summed up in a comment he made after he took the male vocalist honor: “Thank you for being so kind to me.”

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.