For the first time in ACM Awards history — and hopefully last — an Entertainer of the Year winner accepted the award via Zoom.
Luke Bryan grinned a shocked smile as he accepted the top prize Sunday night from a screen projected on stage at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.
It was one in a handful of pandemic-born maneuvers that the Academy of Country Music juggled as the organization threw its second show in seven months from a handful of historic Nashville venues.
Still, the show went on with masked audiences, in-person nominees and more hints of “normal” creeping around the corner.
As co-host Keith Urban said to open the show: “We’ve been through so much, but I’m proud to say that we are very much on our way back, and we’ve done it with a lot of fight, and a lot of help.”
From groundbreaking hosts to career-making wins and venue-hopping performances, read along for six top moments from the 2021 ACM Awards in Nashville.
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Bryan wins again
Bryan earned top prize for the third time in his career and first since 2015.
Backstage via Zoom, the “American Idol” judge and “One Margarita” singer described the moment as “totally, totally surprised and shocked.”
“What a challenging year,” Bryan said during the broadcast. “But to all the fans, and everybody, we’ll be back on the road doing what we love. What an amazing honor. I love you guys.”
Bryan bowed out of his ACM Awards performance last week due to testing positive for COVID-19. He returned to “Idol” Sunday night. The award comes on the heels of 2020 album “Born Here Live Here Die Here,” a gold-citified release from the dominant radio hitmaker.
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Mickey Guyton makes history
Mickey Guyton joined Urban as co-host of the show, becoming the first Black woman to anchor an ACM Awards in its 56-year history. Guyton’s groundbreaking night came with a stirring performance of her 2019 song, “Hold On.”
And just as she opened the ACM Awards alongside Urban with a monologue, a moment of inclusion closed the show. Credits rolled to an encore performance from Brothers Osborne, ending the duo’s first major performance since front man T.J. Osborne came out as one of the few openly gay male country singers last February.
In saying “goodbye” to viewers, Urban offered: “As you’ve seen on this stage presented tonight, country music is a huge big family where everyone is welcome.”
A Station Inn tribute
Country artist Dierks Bentley covering U2 with Americana powerhouse War and Treaty from the Station Inn, a world-renowned house of bluegrass?
Bentley teamed with Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount, AKA husband-wife duo War and Treaty, to perform staple 1980s rock hit “Pride (In The Name of Love).”
And they gave the tune a proper bluegrass twist. Bentley and company enlisted a backing band that featured Larkin Poe’s Rebecca Lovell on mandolin and Amanda Lovell on dobro; Punch Brothers member Paul Kowert played bass; Nashville player Brittany Haas took up fiddle.
Bentley dedicated “Pride” to the bluegrass luminary and longtime Station Inn owner JT Gray, who died last month at 74.
“I first came into this bar when I was about 19 years old, looking for something,” Bentley said. “I found it in the music here, and I found it in the bluegrass community. We’ll be thinking of [Gray] tonight as we sing this song.”
Miranda Lambert goes everywhere
Miranda Lambert — undisputed queen of the ACM Awards — kept viewers busy Sunday night by hop-scotching between Nashville venues for multiple performances.
A longtime shelter pet advocate, Lambert surprised audiences by accompanying Chris Stapleton (who earned two awards — as an artist and producer — for Album of the Year “Starting Over”) at the Bluebird during a rendition of “Maggie’s Song,” an ode to his late pup.
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Before that, Lambert kicked off the three-hour show with full band foot-stompin’ Elle King duet “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home).”
But, best of all, she joined Jon Randall and Jack Ingram for a live debut of “In His Arms,” a song off the collaborators’ upcoming LP, “The Marfa Tapes.” The trio sat in a circle with acoustic guitars and gracefully harmonized on the two-and-a-half minute piece of Texas country storytelling.
Maren wins twice, Carly is ‘Happy Now’
The only two-time winner on Sunday night’s telecast was Maren Morris, who defended her Female Artist of the Year title and added to a growing list of accomplishments for crossover single “The Bones” with a Song of the Year nod.
In accepting Female Artist of the Year, Morris described her fellow nominees — Carly Pearce, Kelsea Ballerini, Ashley McBryde and Miranda Lambert — as women who “brought so much heat to the game, to country music, this year.”
“You’ve inspired me so much, to no end,” Morris said. “And even in a year where no one’s gotten to play shows, I have heard some of the best music out of all of you … thank you so much for inspiring me.”
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And while Carly Pearce only accepted one award on camera Sunday night, she joined Morris in earning two trophies at the annual ceremony. Pearce and Lee Brice earned double honors for duet single “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” which earned Single of the Year and Music Event of the Year.
Arguably the biggest award of her career, a smiling Pearce accepted Single of the Year alongside Brice; she thanked her co-writers Luke Combs, Randy Montana and Jonathan Singleton for helping write “a song about my story.”
“I’m going to try really hard not to cry,” Pearce said. “I love country music more than anything in the whole world.”
Carrie and CeCe
A pair of powerhouse vocalists collided at the Grand Ole Opry House for a gospel medley.
Carrie Underwood performed gospel songs from her new album “My Savior,” enlisting genre giant CeCe Winans to sing a portion of the four-song appearance with her.
She kicked off the extended performance with an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” (yes, seriously — *that* voice). Winans joined for “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” — which she also performed with Underwood on the album — and “The Old Rugged Cross.” The performance ended with a choir-backed take of “How Great Thou Art” that saw Underwood again reach show-stopping vocal heights.
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