CMA Awards Throw Curveballs As Chris Stapleton Wins Three Categories

Chris Stapleton. Photo: Donn Jones

Chris Stapleton. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

At this year’s CMA Awards, the predictable Entertainer, Female, Group, Duo and Musician winners were upstaged by the surprise triple triumph of Chris Stapleton.

Luke Bryan won his second Entertainer trophy. Florida Georgia Line took home its third Duo win. Little Big Town earned a well-deserved fourth statuette as Vocal Group. Miranda Lambert made history with her sixth win as Female Vocalist. Mac McAnally earned his eighth Musician honor, which ties him with the late Chet Atkins. But Stapleton was the stunner, winning the Male, Album and New Artist prizes.

“I don’t know what to say,” he blurted after winning his New Artist award. “I’ve worked a lot of years to get to do this. This is an absolute thrill.” His competition was Sam Hunt, Maddie & Tae, Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini, all of whom have had chart-topping radio hits. Stapleton has not.

“This is unbelievable,” he gasped after winning his Album honor. “I don’t know what to think; I don’t know what to say.” His Traveller CD producer Dave Cobb added, “Thank y’all for buying this record and supporting great art.”

Stapleton won his Male Vocalist award by beating Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley and Eric Church, all of whom are concert headliners. Stapleton is not.

“Well then, there’s gonna be a party tonight,” he stammered. “About two years ago, I lost my dad, and I made this record that I think he would like. He would have liked to have seen this tonight. This is an unbelievable thing to me, and I’m not gonna take it lightly. Thank you so much. I don’t know what else to say.”

After the show, he added, “I didn’t really expect to be here. If I talk about it and think about it, I’m gonna tear up.”

Stapleton also stole the spotlight by performing with pop superstar Justin Timberlake on the telecast. Their Nashville-meets-Memphis collaboration on “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Drink You Away” was very intense and soulful. It blew up on social media immediately.

Pictured (L-R): Hank Williams Jr and Eric Church. Photo: John Russell/CMA

Pictured (L-R): Hank Williams Jr. and Eric Church. Photo: John Russell/CMA

This was one of several pairings on the show. Hank Williams Jr. and Eric Church opened the ceremony with the Waylon Jennings hit “Are You Ready for the Country,” with backing by The McCrary Sisters. Keith Urban and John Mellencamp followed with “Little Pink Houses” and “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”

Earlier in the day, Urban and Church won the Vocal Event award for “Raise ‘Em Up.” This was Urban’s fourth win in this category. Church also made news with his performance of “Mr. Misunderstood,” the title tune of his “surprise” album release this week.

Pictured (L-R) Brooks & Dunn's Kix Brooks, Reba. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

Pictured (L-R) Brooks & Dunn’s Kix Brooks, Reba. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

Other CMA collaborative performances included Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn romping through “Why Haven’t I Heard From You” and “Play Something Country.” Fall Out Boy and Thomas Rhett were aided by prancing, dancing girls as they attempted a mashup of “Crash and Burn” and “Uma Thurman.”

Solo performance stand-outs included Sam Hunt’s smoldering “Take Your Time,” Dierks Bentley’s throbbing and inspirational “Riser,” Zac Brown Band’s spirited “Beautiful Drug,” Florida Georgia Line’s beautiful “Confession,” Blake Shelton’s romping “Gonna,” Brad Paisley’s rollicking “Country Nation” with cheerleaders and football mascots, and Luke Bryan’s romantic “Strip It Down.”

Luke Bryan. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

Luke Bryan. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

“What an amazing night of music,” said Bryan when he won his Entertainer award. “Thank you, Lord; thank you, Jesus; thank you everyone in Heaven for looking out for me.

“This is the best business in the world, with the best people. … Watching Chris Stapleton win was so uplifting. … Everyone in country music, I love you, baby.” Stapleton co-wrote Bryan’s hit “Drink a Beer.”

Besides Stapleton, the only other multiple winner was Little Big Town. The quartet won Vocal Group of the Year and Single of the Year. Plus, the group’s hit “Girl Crush” won Song of the Year for writers Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey. LBT’s performance of it got a standing ovation.

Little Big Town. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

Little Big Town. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

“Seventeen years ago this very month, we became a band,” said the group’s Kimberly Schlapman. “Country music fans, you have changed our lives,” added Jimi Westbrook. “This was a 6/8 ballad about jealousy and heartbreak,” commented Karen Fairchild. “Thank you, gatekeepers, for having the guts to play it.” Phillip Sweet joined the others in thanking the songwriters.

“I needed a bright spot this year,” said Miranda Lambert in accepting her Female Vocalist award. She was presumably referring to her divorce from Blake Shelton, who is now dating his The Voice TV co-star Gwen Stefani.

MIranda Lambert. Photo: CMAPress.com

Miranda Lambert. Photo: CMAPress.com

Lambert performed “Bathroom Sink.” Other performances included Jason Aldean’s “They’re Gonna Know We Were Here,” Kenny Chesney’s “Save It for a Rainy Day,” Carrie Underwood’s “Smoke Break” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Dimestore Cowgirl.”

Maddie & Tae, who won the Video award for “Girl in a Country Song” with director TK McKamy, sang it to introduce the radio winners. Kelsea Ballerini did the same with “Love Me Like You Mean It.”

Florida Georgia Line. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

Florida Georgia Line. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

Presenters included Cam, Jennifer Nettles, Lee Ann Womack, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, Darius Rucker, Pentatonix (singing a snippet of The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira”), Brett Eldredge, Cole Swindell, Kiefer Sutherland and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley.

William Shatner, Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog made cameo appearances, as did the late Jimmy Dickens. Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley co-hosted with bantering wit. This was their eighth time as CMA telecast hosts.

Pictured (L-R): Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

Pictured (L-R): Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood. Photo: Donn Jones/CMA

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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