Mike Dungan, Chris Stapleton,, Cindy Mabe and Morgane Stapleton

It was a night of surprises, tsunamis and coronations at the 51st Academy of Country Music Awards. Thomas Rhett stunned everyone by winning Single of the Year for his career single “Die a Happy Man.” Chris Stapleton snagged six—Album, Male, Song (where he's honored as performer and writer), New Male and Producer (with Dave Cobb) for Traveller—and Jason Aldean picked up his very first Entertainer of the Year following an incredible campaign.

Miranda Lambert, who rocked the unlikely AOR warhorse “Tush” hard with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Keith Urban, scored her seventh Female Vocalist and shared Vocal Event with Little Big Town for “Smokin’ and Drinkin’.” LBT—favored to win Song and Single for “Girl Crush”—also took home their third Group of the Year trophy.

The show opened with co-host Luke Bryan stomping through what could be the new good old boy national anthem in “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day.” Blake Shelton punked new co-host Dierks Bentley, swiping Bentley’s mic while the latter waited for his cue, then walking out to sing the opener with his former hosting partner. Shelton followed that with a sultry “I Came Here to Forget” from the other stage without missing a beat.

Good humor permeated the show. Shelton also crashed the opening monologue for some ad-libbed “end of an era” quips before Bentley quipped that the new hosting match-up should be named “Lurks.” The best gag turned on people taking credit for Stapleton’s success—with Aldean, Rhett, Carrie Underwood and “the tall guy from Lady Antebellum” (Charles Kelley) interrupting—that culminated with an invitation for everyone who wanted to take credit to please stand up, whereupon the entire MGM Grand Garden Arena crowd hit their feet.

If the nominations suggested that 2016 is year of shifting at the Academy, the winners validated it. Beyond Stapleton’s juggernaut—something ACM Prexy Bob Romeo said wouldn’t have happened prior to the CMA Awards dominance in November—a new guard seems to have swept in. Indeed, Stapleton’s steamy “Fire Away,” with vocals from wife/partner in music Morgane Stapleton, suggests a soulful, more adult vein percolating in the genre. Evoking Bonnie Raitt or even Austin-era Willie Nelson, Stapleton offers a counterbalance to the pop and Bro Country that have been driving the genre for the past several years. Kelsea Ballerini and Old Dominion won Best New Female Vocalist and Best New Duo or Group. Ballerini served up her “Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Peter Pan” with Nick Jonas on guitar; Chris Young and Cassadee Pope played their “Think of You,” Kelly; and Sam Hunt sat alone at the piano for a particularly stirring “Make Me Miss You.” It was also the first major awards-show performance by Brett Eldredge and Cole Swindell. There were musically intriguing moments, especially LBT’s funky N’awlins-feeling, Little Feat-evoking partnering with Trombone Shorty “Stay All Night,” and Video of the Year winner Eric Church’s “Record Year” working an old-school DJ breakdown into his current single for a mash-up homage to David Bowie, Lemmy, STP’s Scott Weiland and Glenn Frey.

Dolly Parton received the Tex Ritter Award, given to recognize country music in film, for her biopic Coat of Many Colors. She was joined for a crowd-igniting medley of “Coat” and “Jolene” by Katy Perry.

Though Lambert’s pistol-packing hot-pink Joyce Echols Come & Take It stilettos and LBT’s Karen Fairchild’s woo-woo-high red-patent leather boots would’ve normally rung the fashion bell, it was Perry wearing Parton’s 1972 dress that took the fashion wow moment. Equally wow: Perry wearing the garment with no alterations.

In a bow to the arena-rock thump that’s been permeating the genre for the last several years, Aldean’s “Lights Come On” packed massive crunch, while Underwood’s pounding “Church Bells” suggested equal parts Mariah Carey and Lita Ford and triple-repeat Duo of the Year Florida Georgia Line offered “Confession” near show’s end.

Kenny Chesney had a lyric/graphic take on his week-old “Noise,” which had the audience singing along; Keith Urban employed a ring of fire for what sounds like the summer 2016 anthem “Wasted Time;” Cam stripped it back to a stark stage and string section for her breakout “Burning House”; and Tim McGraw delivered his new “Humble & Kind” with a cavalcade of humanity that suggested a Benneton ad.

The halls and arena ran thick with movers, shakers and weasels of all kinds: Universal’s Cindy Mabe and Mike Dungan, WB’s John Esposito, Sony’s Randy Goodman, Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta, Black River’s Greg McCarn and Doug Johnson, Sony/ATV’s Ben Vaughn and Broken Bow’s fired up Benny Brown and Jon Loba; managers Clarence Spalding, Jason Owen, Clint Higham, Coran Capshaw, Gary Borman, Marian Kraft, Chris Parr, Phil McIntyre, Zach Peters, Tom Lord, Bruce Kalmick, Haley McLemoreMark Hartley, Enzo DiVencenzo, Kyle Quigley, Scott Simon, Narvel and Brandon Blackstock—not to mention Kerri Edwards and Mary Hilliard, the women managers behind the hosts.

Among the attendees of Romeo’s party were WME’s Rob Beckem, Greg Oswald and Joey Lee; CAA’s Bryan Laucks and Rod Essig; Chesney's agent Mike Betterton; uber-barristers Jess Rosen and Gary Gilbert, CMT talent chief Leslie Fram; People Executive Editrix Cynthia Sanz; and Live Nation uber-promoter Brian O’Connell.

Photo of Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris by Meishach Moore

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