By JEFF MOSIER
The Dallas Morning News
ARLINGTON - The last time a national audience saw a concert at AT&T Stadium, the Black Eyed Peas and the Green Bay Packers were celebrating their good night at the 2011 Super Bowl.
On Sunday, millions watched a twangier made-for-TV spectacular that country music legend Mickey Gilley called the "Super Bowl of country music." The 50th-anniversary Academy of Country Music Awards drew a Guinness World Records awards-show crowd of 70,252 for two dozen musical performances, pyrotechnics and seemingly home-field advantage for East Texas' Miranda Lambert.
Cinderella Deramus of Broken Bow, Okla., has spent plenty of time in AT&T Stadium watching cowboys of a different kind ride bulls. An event like Sunday night's never seemed a possibility.
"I would have never dreamed of being at an awards show, but here I am," she said.
For this anniversary show, the ACM Awards moved temporarily from Las Vegas to Arlington and featured current and former Cowboys Tony Romo, Jason Witten and Troy Aikman as presenters and Cowboys cheerleaders distributing the awards. The Texas connection - one that wasn't planned - continued as Lambert won Song of the Year, Album of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year, in addition to a Milestone Award.
In addition to Lambert's wins and huge applause for the Cowboys, Texas dominated the conversation. Every time anyone mentioned or sang about country legend George Strait, the crowd went wild.
In part, the move to Arlington was an opportunity to exponentially increase the number of fans who could attend, from the couple of thousand tickets available for the shows in Las Vegas. This is the first major awards show to be staged in venue this size and required more than 150 tractor trailers of equipment and a month to unload and set up for the show.
Musicians, celebrities and VIPs walked the red carpet outside AT&T Stadium for 3½ hours, equaling the length of the actual show. But cowboy chic styles were equally common on the sidewalks leading up to the stadium, as fans dressed up in their ACM Sunday best.
Formal gowns were scattered throughout the crowd, as were men in suits. But the more common look was women in short or mid-length skirts with cowboys boots and men with boots, jeans and dark blazers.
Others chose comfort over flash. Deramus showed up in an Oklahoma State University jersey, denim shorts and tennis shoes. She said she had brought a fancy dress but had second thoughts.
"I think they are a little overdressed," she said. "I only want to enjoy myself."
Although the show was a national one hosted by Luke Bryan - who won entertainer of the year - and Lambert's husband, Blake Shelton, there was an effort to highlight local flavor.
Beside past and present Cowboys players, local golfer Jordan Spieth, wearing the Master's green jacket he won this month, appeared on stage. Taya Kyle, the widow of murdered Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, appeared when Garth Brooks honored the military with a performance of the song "All-American Kid."
The academy presented Milestone Awards to Brooks and Strait, both of whom have storied histories with the Cowboys.
Brooks sold out three record-setting shows at Texas Stadium in 1993. And Strait headlined the 2009 concert that opened what was then Cowboys Stadium. Then in 2014, he chose Arlington as the site of his farewell show - another record-setter, with nearly 105,000 fans.
Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck, who was presented with an honorary trophy before the broadcast, told academy CEO Bob Romeo that "we expect you back regularly."
Presumably, he may have wished some of the musicians honored or performing had studied their geography and not thanked Dallas. Cluck has bristled in the past about Arlington snubs that started with the stadium's description as the "Palace in Dallas."
There's already a hint about a return, depending on the post-show review. Romeo said Friday that he was talking with the Dallas Cowboys about bringing the show back to AT&T Stadium every five years.
"I never felt so welcome," he said, and he thanked public officials from Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings to Gov. Greg Abbott to state Comptroller Glenn Hegar.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones also received a preshow award Sunday, and cracked up the audience with a self-deprecating joke.
"It feels like a Super Bowl trophy," Jones said. "I've forgotten what they felt like."
Those laughs, though, were topped by Romo's crack about the so-called "Deflategate" and balls that went viral.
On a more serious note, Aikman, who hails from Oklahoma, spoke about the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. He introduced Alan Jackson, who repurposed his 9/11 tribute song, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," to mark the anniversary, earning a standing ovation.
Aside from a couple of minor audio glitches, Sunday's show appeared to go smoothly, at least from inside the stadium.
The fan complaints were commonly aimed at the ACM Party for a Cause festival at nearby Globe Life Park in Arlington.
Many pointed out there weren't enough food vendors for the tens of thousands there. In some cases, people waited more than an hour in lines that were 100 deep. But the other inconveniences were out of the host's control.
The crowds there encountered North Texas' mercurial weather in what's become a pattern at the largest national events at AT&T Stadium. Severe storms chased people out of their seats Friday and Saturday nights for the concerts.
Previously, snow and ice storms marred the Super Bowl and NBA All Star game. Heavy rain scared some fans away from one afternoon musical performance in downtown Dallas for the Final Four. Bone-chilling wind was the worst that could be said of January's college football championship.
For Barbara Graves of Garland, the ACM weekend was a surprise. The country music fan said she tried to buy tickets the moment they went on sale but had no luck. Only a friend-of-a-friend deal made her presence Sunday night possible.
A couple of hours before the show started, Graves was already predicting the highlights, none of which involved awards.
"What's not to like about having Blake Shelton host anything?" she said.
Staff writers Sarah Blaskovich and Hunter Hauk and contributed to this report.
Follow Jeff Mosier on Twitter at @jeffmosier