Although Jason Aldean took home entertainer of the year honors at Sunday night's Academy of Country Music Awards, the most celebrated name of the night was Chris Stapleton. The 37-year-old soul man won six awards Sunday and turned in one of the most affecting performances of the CBS telecast. Here are the highlights and lowlights of the 51st ACM ceremony (which returned to its Las Vegas home after last year's one-off at Arlington's AT&T Stadium):
STAPLETON'S FIRE BURNS ON -- As mentioned, Stapleton added three ACM trophies to the multiple CMAs and Grammys snagged earlier this year. His acceptance speeches Sunday were among the most entertaining: After being handed the Song of the Year prize for "Nobody to Blame," Stapleton joked, "You gotta be kidding me. I thought we were gonna get 'Girl Crush'-ed on this one." One of the only other successful comedic bits of the evening involved several country A-listers clamoring to take credit for Stapleton's success. Toward the end of the show, the singer and his wife joined voices on the beautiful "Fire Away." Social-media hearts melted.
VETERANS ON AUTOPILOT -- You could ask me about Blake Shelton's "Came Here to Forget," Kenny Chesney's "Noise," Jason Aldean's "Lights Come On" and Keith Urban's "Wasted Time," but I won't be able to tell you much. All four forgettable new singles were performed by their stars Sunday night. Some sang better than others, but all pretty much flailed under the weight of trite lyrics and overly focus-grouped arrangements. But the worst offender had to be Tim McGraw, whose treacly "Humble and Kind" was set to a backdrop of firefly lights and ended with a children's choir. Where the hell is Merle Haggard when you need him?
THIS ONE'S FOR THE GIRLS -- With the biggies often disappointing us, at least some newcomers brought their A games. Cam sizzled with the mesmerizing hit "Burning House" and Kelsea Ballerini nailed her vocals on "Peter Pan" just before Nick Jonas joined her for, um, no apparent reason. Miranda Lambert said it best during her acceptance speech for female vocalist of the year (her seventh consecutive win in that category): "I love seeing new country girls up here shinin' and singing songs they wrote themselves."
SHADES OF TEXAS -- Speaking of Lambert, she provided the biggest Texas moment of the evening when she brought out Houston's Billy Gibbons (as well as Keith Urban) for a breakneck rendition of ZZ Top's "Tush." Otherwise, there wasn't much Lone Star representation on stage beyond presenter cameos by Dallas athlete Von Miller and East Texas singer Kacey Musgraves. It was very different from last year's ACM show, which took over Jerryworld and peaked with a George Strait performance.
THE TRUE STANDOUTS -- But we're talking about this year's ACM show, and it certainly had its winning segments. The often overlooked Eric Church appeared refreshingly heartfelt and authentic on "Record Year," which ended with sonic tributes to late heroes David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Lemmy and Scott Weiland. Trombone Shorty lent Little Big Town's "Stay All Night" a brassy new arrangement, and the result was 100 percent joy. Thomas Rhett kept it simple and surprisingly soulful for "Die a Happy Man." And it seems fitting to end with a nod to Dolly Parton and Katy Perry, whose ultra-colorful medley of Parton gems induced an extended goofy grin. Parton's sparkly coat of many colors deserved its own ACM trophy.