Luke Bryan was richly rewarded for co-hosting the ACM Awards for the very first time on Sunday night: he took home the night's top honor.
In the biggest surprise of Sunday night's telecast, which aired live from Las Vegas on CBS, Bryan was named Entertainer of the Year, beating out his ACM Awards co-host Blake Shelton, as well as Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift. He's the first male artist to win the award since 2007, when Kenny Chesney took it home. Since then, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood have each won the fan-voted award twice.
A visibly emotional Bryan struggled to hold back tears as he told the crowd, "This is the defining moment of my life and it means the world to me, and I will never take it for granted." He added, "What I always wanted to be was just a country singer that got to ride on a tour bus and show up at a new stage and play music every night…every time I step on stage, it is a blessing to play for fans." Noting that he'd just started headlining his own tours, Bryan also thanked all the artists for whom he's opened - those he "watched from the side of the stage" - who he said taught him how to be a better entertainer.
Bryan was presented his award by Shania Twain, making her first appearance on the ACM Awards in a decade. At one point, Shelton hugged Twain, and then made an "all right!" gesture, indicating that embracing the Canadian singer was a long-held dream of his.
The night's other big winner was Shelton 's wife, Miranda Lambert, who was named Female Vocalist of the Year for the fourth straight year. She also picked up the awards for Single and Song of the Year for "Over You," the song she co-wrote with Shelton about his late brother. Lambert is now one of only three women to have won Female Vocalist four or more times: Reba McEntire and Loretta Lynn are the others.
Accepting the Female Vocalist award, Lambert said, "I thought for sure Carrie had it this year, and she damn well deserves it!" Then, in tears, she said, "Last night a huge dream of mine came true … I went from being a little girl singing into a hairbrush to watching Shania Twain with Faith Hill, Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson." She was referring to the fact that she, Faith, Reba and Kelly all went to see Shania's Las Vegas show at Caesars Palace on Saturday night.
Jason Aldean was named Male Vocalist of the Year - his first win in that category - and his collaboration with Bryan and Eric Church, "Only Way I Know How," was named Vocal Event of the Year. It was his second consecutive win in that category: he won last year for "Don't You Wanna Stay," his duet with Kelly Clarkson.
Eric Church's " Chief" was named Album of the Year, and he was presented with his trophy by rock legend John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Accepting the trophy, a surprised Church said, "I can't believe I just met John Fogerty! We should hang out later."
Little Big Town was named Vocal Group of the Year and earned Video of the Year honors for "Tornado," while Thompson Square took home the Vocal Duo of the Year prize. Florida Georgia Line captured the fan-voted Best New Artist Award. Taylor Swift, who was up for five awards, went home empty-handed.
But of course, the ACM Awards are really all about the musical performances: the first award wasn't handed out until about 50 minutes into the telecast, and overall, a whopping 25 performances were crammed into the three-hour show, including some unique collaborations:
-After Hunter Hayes debuted his new single "I Want Crazy," he teamed up with music legend Stevie Wonder for a version of Stevie's classic #1 hit "Sir Duke," which had everyone in the audience singing along. Wonder then closed out the show with another classic, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)," joined by Shelton and Bryan.
-A tearful McIntyre introduced a special tribute to the late Dick Clark - whose production company first brought the ACM Awards to TV - starring George Strait and Garth Brooks, together for the first time. Garth began by singing his touching hit "The Dance," and then joined George for a version of "The Cowboy Rides Away" as footage of Clark played in the background.
-Tim McGraw performed "Highway Don't Care" with Taylor Swift while Keith Urban shredded on guitar.
-Brad Paisley was joined by Hunter Hayes and Dierks Bentley for his new song "Outstanding in Our Field," and then by pop star John Mayer for another new song, "Beat This Summer." Both songs are from Paisley s new album, " Wheelhouse," which is out on Tuesday.
- Shelton kicked off the show with "Boys 'Round Here," featuring Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan, Sheryl Crow and Pistol Annies.
As for the job that Shelton and Bryan did co-hosting the show for the first time, their banter mostly involved them busting on each other for their alleged lack of talent and the relative tightness of their jeans. Bryan wasn't as smooth in his delivery as Shelton, but he did just fine, considering he didn't have Shelton's years of experience both co-hosting the show with Reba, and appearing on-camera weekly on a hit reality show.