NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Chris Stapleton was the big winner with six trophies including song and album of the year and Luke Combs claimed the biggest prize with entertainer of the year at the Country Music Association Awards on Wednesday night.
Stapleton won song and single of the year for “Starting Over” and album of the year for his record of the same name. He walked away with two more trophies as a producer on the single and album.
He then won male vocalist of the year for the fifth time and it appeared he would sweep the night before Combs swooped in and kept it from becoming a coronation.
“I don’t deserve to win it," an emotional Combs said as he accepted the entertainer of the year trophy from Alan Jackson, "but I’m sure as hell glad that I did.”
At times it seemed Stapleton, who also performed twice, was on the stage all night.
“Man, amazing,” the soft-spoken singer with the long beard, never one for speeches, said after he won his last award. "I'm running out of words.
He came into the night the top nominee along with Eric Church, who was shut out.
Along with Stapleton and Church, Combs beat out Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, who opened the ABC telecast with a medley of her hits, including “Kerosene,” “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Gunpowder & Lead.”
It was a night of big emotions for many winners.
The Brothers Osborne won vocal duo of the year for the fourth time. Lead singer T.J. Osborne, who came out as gay this year, appeared to be holding back tears as he accepted.
“It’s been a roller coaster of a year, especially for me emotionally, and for you all to support me, it’s been incredible,” he said from the stage.
Allen was openly tearful as he became the second Black performer to win new artist of the year.
“I want to thank my father who’s no longer with us for introducing me to country music,” Allen said.
He recalled spending the last of his money to be able to see pioneering Black country artist Charley Pride at the CMAs in 2016, then getting to perform with Pride on last year’s show. Pride died of COVID-19 a month later.
Darius Rucker in 2009 was the first Black artist to win the award.
Old Dominion won vocal group of the year for the fourth-straight time.
Carly Pearce wept as she won female vocalist of the year for the first time.
Pearce, competing in an all-female category, was the only woman to take the stage and claim an award during the ceremony, now in its 55th year.
Gabby Barrett was the night’s most nominated woman with four nods, but the “American Idol” alum was shut out.
The ceremony represented a return to normal for the show. It was back in front of an audience at its usual home, the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, after last year’s ceremony was held at a crowd-free Music City Center because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re following all the health protocols to keep everyone safe,” host Luke Bryan said during his opening monologue. “And we’re all vaccinated,” he said, “or not,” asking the awkwardly laughing audience, “anyone?”
Moments later he was joined on stage by his “American Idol” co-hosts Lionel Richie and Katy Perry, who sneaked up on him from behind.
“I have hosted other awards shows,” Bryan told his “Idol” co-hosts, pretending to be surprised. “I can handle this myself.”
Perry answered, “Yeah, we’ve seen them, that’s why we’re here.”
They then helped him present the first award to Stapleton.
The CMAs are always heavy on performances and this year was no exception, with more songs than awards.
Church was surrounded by flames on the stage as he belted out “Heart on Fire." Pearce and Ashley McBryde then took the stage for a duet of “Never Wanted to Be That Girl.”
Underwood and Jason Aldean dueted on their current hit “If I Didn't Love You" and real-life friends Kane Brown and Chris Young will sang their hit duet “Famous Friends," which was nominated in three categories but failed to take an award.
In winning album of the year, Stapleton beat nominees including Morgan Wallen, who was caught earlier this year yelling a racial slur. The CMA Board of Directors disqualified Wallen from individual awards, but he could still win for his work.
Wallen, who was not in attendance, got the biggest cheer by far of all the album nominees from the arena crowd.
Had he won, it would have come during a show that featured diversity and inclusiveness in country music.
In addition to the speeches by Allen and Osborne, who also brought up his sexuality during the duo's performance, Stapleton joined Jennifer Hudson to pay tribute to Aretha Franklin and the country songs she recorded with a rousing, gospel-style rendition of Willie Nelson's “Night Life.”
And Mickey Guyton was joined by Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards for her anthem of Black self-acceptance, “Love My Hair.”
Dalton reported from Los Angeles.