The moment proved a coronation of sorts for Bryan as the “Tailgates and Tanlines” singer beat out Lambert, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and two-time Entertainer of the Year winner Taylor Swift, who went home empty handed. Bryan was overcome with emotion and openly wept while he name-checked peers and thanked viewers for their votes. “Thank you so much for making my life what it is,” he said. “This is the defining moment of my life.”
Lambert won four awards, including Female Vocalist of the Year for the fourth consecutive time, joining Reba McEntire and Loretta Lynn as the only singers to win the award four or more times. Lambert also took home Single of the Year as an artist, and Song of the Year as a writer for her hit “Over You,” an award she shared with co-writer Shelton.
“Having your songs and your lyrics be recognized by your peers is pretty much as good as it gets,” Lambert said, fighting back tears. “Thank you for accepting me as a songwriter, not just a singer-performer, because that means the world to me.”
Other winners included Aldean, who won Male Vocalist of the Year; Little Big Town, who were crowned Vocal Group of the Year; and Eric Church, who nabbed an Album of the Year trophy for his blockbuster breakthrough Chief.
“I can’t believe I just met John Fogerty,” Church said. “We should hang together,” he told the rock legend, who presented the award. Earlier, the “Springsteen” singer surprised viewers with a stark acoustic performance of his Biblical love ballad “Like Jesus Does.”
Even more surprising than Bryan’s win was that it came sandwiched between a pair of Stevie Wonder performances. First, the R&B legend and baby-faced “Bieber of Country” Hunter Hayes traded verses on Wonder’s not-even-a-little-bit-country classic “Sir Duke.” Then, as credits rolled, Bryan and Shelton joined Wonder onstage to close the show with the singer’s 1970 hit, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” – a song that topped the charts when “A Good Year for the Roses” was a hit for George Jones.
Before that, though, came one of the evening’s most anticipated performances when Brad Paisley and John Mayer offered up some country-rock crosspollination of their own, dueting on Paisley’s bluesy new single “Beat the Summer.” The surprisingly subdued performance – only Mayer’s second appearance singing in over a year – never became the six-string showdown audiences may have hoped for. Trading licks, Paisley and Mayer riffed over each over more than they riffed with each other. The song sounded even more like a mash-up when audio interference marred the broadcast and played the duo to commercial.
An earlier Paisley performance, featuring Dierks Bentley and Hayes, proved a more scorching twang-off. But the guitar solo of the night belonged to Keith Urban, who gave his best Neal Schon impression during a performance with Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift on McGraw’s stadium-sized torch ballad “Highway Don’t Care.” Between Urban’s fancy fretwork, Swift hitting her high notes and McGraw’s characteristically John Boehner-worthy tan, it was an overwhelming amount of country star power for one center-stage catwalk to take.
But with many performances truncated, some less than a minute in length, it was no night for extended jams, even in the case of superstars. That brevity almost seemed like a slap in the face to Hall of Famers Garth Brooks and George Strait, who teamed up and turned in the hands-down highlight of the show: a ribute to late ACM producer Dick Clark that killed. Brooks, rocking an inexplicably hilarious goatee, sang half of his Class of 1989 classic “The Dance,” then joined Strait to duet on the latter’s poignant weeper “The Cowboy Rides Away.” Last year, the 60-year-old Strait announced that he’s retiring from the road.
Other highlights included Kelly Clarkson’s brisk performance of her Seventies AM-radio throwback “Don’t Rush,” and a rare appearance by Entertainer of the Year-presenter Shania Twain, who stepped on the ACM stage for the first time in a decade. “It’s just so great to be back here,” she said “I’m having a blast.”
Co-hosts Shelton and Bryan got a good laugh or two with their witty, bromantic banter, the best of which included Bryan introducing singer-turned-American Idol judge Keith Urban as the “the no fly zone between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey” and Shelton capping an introduction of Lambert by adding, “the coolest thing is that this morning I saw her naked!”