Everyone cheered him on, from Lambert to Bryan, who won entertainer of the year.
“Watching Chris Stapleton have this night is so uplifting,” Bryan said onstage after he won the top award for a second time.
Stapleton, who was the lead singer of the bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, was on the brink of tears when he won his third prize at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.
“About two years ago, I lost my dad and I made this record thinking about a lot of music he would like. … My mom is here tonight. I want to thank my mom,” said Stapleton. “I’m not going to take it lightly …I got to thank my wife again, she always pushes me to be the best I can be …I gotta thank all my cousins in Kentucky.”
Stapleton’s night wasn’t just about winning awards: He also turned in a show-stopping performance with Justin Timberlake, who tapped into his Memphis, Tennessee, roots as they strummed their guitars while singing “Tennessee Whiskey,” which Stapleton covered on his album. They followed that with Timberlake’s tune, “Drink You Away.”
The audience was in awe: Timberlake’s wife, actress Jessica Biel, watched excitedly and bopped her head while Keith Urban recorded the performance with his phone.
“Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton, thank you very much. I’m going to go home and practice,” Lambert said onstage when she won female vocalist of the year
It was Lambert’s sixth consecutive win in the category.
“I appreciate it. I needed a bright spot this year,” she said onstage.
Lambert could have been referring to her divorce to Blake Shelton, announced in July. Shelton, who performed at the live show on ABC, confirmed Wednesday just hours before the awards show that he and his fellow “Voice” mentor Gwen Stefani are dating. Underwood and Brad Paisley joked about the divorce at the top of the show.
“And of course we can’t ignore the breakup that rocked our world,” Underwood said, as the camera panned to Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog.
“On a completely unrelated topic, howdy Blake?” Paisley replied as the camera panned to Shelton, who laughed and clapped his hands along with the audience.
“Did you hear that duet that Blake did with Ashley Madison?” Paisley asked. Underwood replied: “That was with Ashley Monroe.”
That was followed by a pair of duets: Eric Church and Hank Williams, Jr. performed “Are You Ready for the Country” and John Mellencamp and Urban worked their guitars during “Pink Houses.” Thomas Rhett, whose “Die A Happy Man” is No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot country songs chart, performed with rockers Fall Out Boy.
Sam Hunt won over the audience with his performance of “Take Your Time,” while Underwood sang “Smoke Break” and Kacey Musgraves performed “Dime Store Cowgirl” sporting a cowboy hat and a shiny number revealing her legs and arms. Bryan sang his slow groove “Strip It Down,” while Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn also performed.
Little Big Town, who also earned applause for their performance of the ballad “Girl Crush,” won vocal group and single of the year for the No. 1 hit. The writers of “Girl Crush” won song of the year.
“Seventeen years ago this very month we became a band,” an emotional Kimberly Schlapman said onstage, standing next to band members Karen Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet.
The foursome, along with Church, walked into the arena as the most nominated act with five. They lost music video of the year to Maddie & Tae’s “Girl in a Country Song” and musical event of the year to Church and Urban.
“Thank you Lord, thank you Jesus, thank you everyone in heaven looking out for me,” Bryan said. “This is the best business in the world with the best people.”