LAS VEGAS — The 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards opened on a somber note Sunday night as the genre's biggest stars returned to the Vegas Strip for the first time since last fall's mass shooting left dozens of festivalgoers dead.
But it didn't stay that way. Country music, resolved to bring messages of hope and healing to a city still reeling from the massacre, put on a spectacle of a show that was heavy on emotion.
On a night when Jason Aldean won top honors for the third straight year and Miranda Lambert became the single winningest artist in the history of the ACM Awards, it was Carrie Underwood who delivered the most memorable moment.
All eyes were on the singer, who made her first televised appearance since a November fall that left her with a broken wrist and a significant facial injury. When she stepped out for the live debut of her new single Cry Pretty, she looked exactly the same and her voice soared through the verses and chorus. By the end of the performance, Underwood was crying and the audience gave her an extended standing ovation.
ACM Awards 2018: Stars hit the red carpet and stage
Two hours earlier, Aldean — flanked by Luke Bryan, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert and Thomas Rhett under spotlights on an otherwise dark stage — said they wanted to leave their national prime-time audience with a series of performances that summed up what it's like for the country music family to be back in Las Vegas.
“It’s everything you’ll hear tonight, from the songs that bring us to our feet, make you want to pull someone close, or just live in the moment. Nothing can take that away from us,” Aldean said.
He then closed the show with an emotional third consecutive Entertainer of the Year win.
"It's been a rough year, and I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who reached out to us and showed us love and support over the last six months," said Aldean, who was performing when a gunman began spraying bullets during the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Oct. 1. "To my Route 91 people, you guys are in our hearts always and we love Las Vegas. Vegas strong, baby."
The evening’s other top winners included Lambert, who with her Song of the Year win for Tin Man became the top artist in the history of the ACM Awards. Tin Man was Lambert’s 30th and 31st victories. She followed it up with her ninth win for Female Vocalist of the Year to bring her total to 32.
"I cannot believe this, I really can't," Lambert said. "I love country music. It's my entire life, and the fact that you all care so much about what I'm doing, I'll never take it for granted."
Off camera, Brothers Osborne were double winners, taking trophies for Vocal Duo and Video of the Year. Chris Stapleton also won two awards: Album and Male Vocalist of the Year. Early in the show, host Reba McEntire explained that Stapleton's twin sons had been born and he wasn't able to make the trip.
McEntire returned as host of the ACM Awards for the 15th time, joking that it apparently took two men to do the job of one woman. McEntire hosted the show 14 times before ceding to Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan in 2012. In 2016, Shelton stepped down and Dierks Bentley filled the spot.
Shelton led a standing ovation for McEntire. And while the Voice coach isn't a host, he was a large part of the show. Shelton performed his new single I Lived It and participated in the ACMs' series of 25-year throwback performances, which were among the night's highlights.
The flashbacks included Jon Pardi and Alan Jackson singing Jackson's signature hit Chattahoochee, Shelton and Toby Keith on Keith's Should've Been a Cowboy, and McEntire with Kelly Clarkson on McEntire's Does He Love You.
Red carpet at the 2018 ACM Awards
Other memorable performances included Little Big Town, which incorporated sounds from Jupiter in its cover of Elton John's Rocket Man; Urban's duet with Julia Michaels on his new single Coming Home; Bryan’s hope-filled Most People are Good, which had the audience on its feet clapping and singing along; and Chris Janson's electric show-closer Redneck Life.
In addition, genuinely sweet moments punctuated the night. McEntire surprised the audience with news of Stapleton’s twins, and Kane Brown and Lauren Alaina brought the star-filled audience to its feet during an emotionally charged version of their nominated What Ifs.
Bentley performed his Woman, Amen as fan-submitted photos of their favorite women were shown in the background. Bentley finished the song, walked off the stage and pulled his wife, Cassidy, into a reluctant embrace. Bryan tried to jokingly jump in and Bentley pushed him away.
And, Old Dominion’s surprise win in the Group of the Year category left the members nearly speechless and their spouses crying. The win snapped Little Big Town’s five-year Group of the Year streak.
“Man, wow,” said Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey as the band accepted the award. “This is heavy. In a lot of ways. There’s a lot of people who make a lot of sacrifices for us to be where we are. We’re so lucky. Look at us. We look good, and we feel good, and we’re friends, and we’re having a ball. Thank you for letting us make music.
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