The Mercury Nashville recording artist surprised the industry with a trio of unlikely wins — for male vocalist, new artist of the year and album of the year — and the singer also scored the most-talked about musical moment of the night via his performance with Justin Timberlake. In fact, Stapleton’s night even overshadowed Luke Bryan‘s second straight win as entertainer of the year — the first time an artist had repeated in the category since Kenny Chesney won three straight times between 2006 and 2008. (Taylor Swift won the award in 2009 and 2011.)
Stapleton — an artist without a top 40 single on the country charts — might not have tallied at radio, but he did receive a ton of positive press for his Traveller disc, which took the prize for album of the year — another huge shock to the audience. For the first time in 12 years, the CMA voters selected a winner in the album category that didn’t include a top 40 hit, with the last example being American IV: The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash in 2003. In winning the male vocalist honor, Stapleton broke Blake Shelton‘s five-year winning streak. “This is an unbelievable thing to me, and I’m not going to take it lightly,” he told the audience while accepting his final award of the night.
There were some awards that weren’t surprises, however. Little Big Town walked away with single of the year for “Girl Crush,” an honor Karen Fairchild said was for “a ballad about jealousy and heartache. This was about being brave and being bold,” before thanking the writers, Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey. The trio of ladies would get a chance to thank voters themselves later in the broadcast with their win for song of the year. “We just want to thank Little Big Town, who were behind this song literally from hour one,” said Rose. Just a few minutes later, the group would give an emotional performance of the song that netted them and the writers their respective trophies.
However, the most-talked about performance of the night belonged to Stapleton with “Tennessee Whiskey,” performed with Timberlake. The song — from Traveller — was a No. 2 hit for George Jones in 1983. Their performance ended with a bit of Timberlake’s “Drink You Away,” which brought the Bridgestone Arena crowd to their collective feet with a standing ovation.
Some of the artists were repeat winners at the podium. Florida Georgia Line won their third vocal duo of the year award, while Little Big Town claimed their fourth win for vocal group of year. Their win gives them the longest streak in the field since Rascal Flatts won six in a row from 2002 to 2008. Another streak of six now belongs to Miranda Lambert as female vocalist. Bryan was the final repeat winner, and the superstar was exhilarated, to say the least, but he couldn’t resist tipping his hat to the big winner of the night. “What an amazing night of music. Watching Chris Stapleton have this night was so amazing.”
The show kicked off with an opening that parodied Star Wars, with Paisley and Underwood playing the central characters. Also appearing in the montage were Little Big Town, Darius Rucker and Bryan. Then, it was onto the music — with the much-anticipated duet of “Are You Ready for the Country” between Hank Williams Jr. and Eric Church. The song — originally a hit for Waylon Jennings — is the first single from It’s About Time, the Nash Icon debut project from Williams, set for release this January. That performance set the table for John Mellencamp and Keith Urban‘s spirited take of “Pink Houses,” which segued into Urban’s “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” Later on, Thomas Rhett continued the collaborative thread by performing his “Crash and Burn” with Fall Out Boy. The pop group’s “Uma Thurman” was also featured during their set.
Other standout performances included the Zac Brown Band‘s “Beautiful Drug” and Chesney’s “Save It for a Rainy Day.” Sam Hunt gave a subdued version of his huge crossover hit “Take Your Time.” Church also scored with his performance of “Mr. Misunderstood,” the title cut from his just-released album. Making a splashy appearance on the show was Kacey Musgraves, who sang her current single “Dime Store Cowgirl.”
One performance that took viewers back in time was a medley featuring Reba McEntire and her 1994 hit “Why Haven’t I Heard From You,” and Brooks & Dunn recapturing their past with 2005’s “Play Something Country.” The performance gave the audience a taste of their Vegas residence, which will resume Dec. 2 at Caesar’s Palace.
The show started with co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood‘s patented monologues. Among their targets were Donald Trump, the Ashley Madison website and former couple Miss Piggy and Kermit — oh, and on the topic of splits: “Howdy, Blake,” Paisley quipped. Of course, that was a sly reference to Shelton’s divorce from Miranda Lambert this past summer. Lambert was not mentioned by name in the opening, which included a special surprise appearance by the legendary William Shatner.
In ceremonies held before the telecast, Mac McAnally won his eighth award for musician of the year — one shy of tying the record held by Chet Atkins. Posthumous awards were given to George Jones (Joe Talbot Award) and Johnny Cash (Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award). They join a group of winners that included Dot newcomers Maddie & Tae (video of the year for “Girl in a Country Song”) and Capitol Nashville superstars Urban and Church for musical event of the year, both of which were presented earlier in the day on ABC’s Good Morning America. The two won the prize for “Raise ‘Em Up.” The win was Urban’s third straight, following wins with Lambert (“We Were Us”) and Tim McGraw and Swift (“Highway Don’t Care”). In winning the 2015 honor, Urban tied Paisley (with whom he won the honor in 2009) for the most wins in the category.