By Cindy Watts, The Tennessean
LAS VEGAS - Country music has a new ACM king.
Luke Bryan pulled off the night's biggest surprise at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas by collecting the event's most coveted award, the fan-voted entertainer of the year.
Bryan bested stiff competition from co-host Blake Shelton, who won the same award from the Country Music Association in November; Jason Aldean, for whom Bryan spent last year opening on tour; Taylor Swift, whose "Red" album is now four-times platinum; and Miranda Lambert, who won the evening's most awards.
No one was more shocked than Bryan, who doubled over when he heard the news.
"I don't know what to say, guys," said Bryan. "Thank you guys so much, fans for doing this to me. Thank you so much for making my life what it is and what I always wanted it to be. What I always wanted to be was a country singer who got to ride on a tour bus and show up every night ... and sing. I just started headlining, this doesn't even feel real. This means the world to me, and I will never take it for granted."
"Congratulations, buddy," Shelton told Bryan from the stage. "You won entertainer of the year in your first and last year of co-hosting."
But it was Miranda Lambert who was the night's biggest award winner. Lambert took home four trophies for three categories: song of the year, single record of the year, and female vocalist of the year. Lambert was awarded two trophies in the song of the year category, one for being the artist and one for being the song's writer.
"I didn't know what to say about song of the year because my husband was about to make me bawl," Lambert said while accepting single of the year.
While accepting song of the year, which goes to the songwriters and Lambert wrote with husband Shelton, he said: "I've learned so much from this human being standing beside me, I've learned so much about myself. Thank you, baby."
Lambert had collected herself by the time she won single of the year and explained what the win meant to her.
"As a songwriter, having your songs and lyrics we recognized by your peers is as good as it gets," she said. "Thank you for accepting me as a songwriter and not just a singer and performer, that means the world to me."
Following Lambert in the awards tally, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Little Big Town and Florida Georgia Line all accepted two trophies - but it took the ceremony around 48 minutes before a trophy was handed out. What followed didn't stray much from the award winners at the CMA Awards in November.
The ACM's winners for group of the year (Little Big Town), song of the year ("Over You"), duo of the year (Thompson Square), album of the year (Eric Church's "Chief"), and female vocalist of the year (Miranda Lambert) all mirrored the CMA winners.
Little Big Town, who received the group of the year nod, was so excited members couldn't stop screaming into the microphone. They did manage to collect themselves enough to thank their team, their label and their children.
However, there were differences - a significant change being Jason Aldean accepting the trophy for Male Vocalist of the Year.
"Oh man, this is really surprising," said Aldean, who also won for vocal event of the year. "I'm a big fan and friends with everybody in this category. I'm glad I get to sing for a living, and I'm glad you guys dig it. I don't know what to say. I love what I do and I appreciate you guys letting me do it."
The Academy of Country Music did welcome a new co-host this year. Luke Bryan replaced Reba McEntire as Shelton's co-host and the pairing provided for a night littered with quips about topics that ranged from Shelton seeing Lambert naked to exactly what the co-hosts put in their blue jeans.
Shelton wondered if Bryan's skin-tight jeans were painted on by Sherwin Williams. Bryan retorted that Shelton's pants were like buying something on credit - nothing up front. During the banter, Underwood was shown in audience playfully covering her mother's ears.
The men, long known to country music fans as having two of the biggest personalities in the business, good naturedly called out their fellow country singers in the audience - often at their own expense. Kelly Clarkson was seated with her fiancé Brandon Blackstock, who is also Shelton's manager. Bryan retorted that at least Blackstock was finally surrounding himself with real talent.
In the first 20 minutes, the ACM Awards managed to include the opening number featuring Shelton, Bryan, Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow and Pistol Annies, the opening monologue full of quips and friendly jabs, Kenny Chesney's performance of "Pirate Flag" and then scoot across town to the Orleans Hotel and Casino where Shelton and Bryan were on hand to introduce Brad Paisley's performance of "Outstanding in Our Field" with Dierks Bentley and Hunter Hayes.
The performances ran the extremes with both Church and Shelton delivering stripped down versions of their songs. Church sat on a stool and played "Like Jesus Does" with just a back-up singer and an acoustic guitar and Shelton sang "Sure Be Cool if You Did" on a smaller stage at the MGM Grand's Garden Arena with a couple of accompanists and an acoustic guitar. On the other end of the spectrum, The Band Perry literally sprang onto stage at the beginning of the performance of their new single "Done" with members appearing to shoot out of the platform. All clad in black leather, the Perry's show-stopping performance had a rock 'n' roll feel with members clad in black leather, performing choreographed dance moves, Kimberly Perry even head-banging at one point with sparks and fire shooting sporadically in the background.
But it was the George Strait and Garth Brooks collaboration in honor of Dick Clark that most of the artists on the red carpet leading into the show were most excited to see - and that has social media a flutter. The men didn't disappoint. Brooks performed "The Dance" and then they performed "The Cowboy Rides Away" together.
However, it's sure to be Bryan that has country music fans talking for the next few days. His career has been on a steady climb and he's made the trip with a smile on his face. His latest album "Tailgates and Tanlines" is platinum and he debuted his new single from an upcoming album "Crash My Party" on the awards show.