The solemn opening to Sunday night’s 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena offered just a few words and no music from stars Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Maren Morris and Thomas Rhett, but it served as a sincere and affectionate tribute to those affected by the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting on behalf of the country music community.
After that, the night was all about celebrating music and having a good time, although it felt like another victory over tragedy when Aldean, who was onstage on October 1 when the shooting began, won the grand finale Entertainer of the Year award. Other mentions of the shooting were behind the scenes, including a concourse-level info kiosk from the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center and pre-show comments from academy CEO Pete Fisher, who noted the ACM Party for a Cause events had raised $400,000 for the Las Vegas community in the past six months.
“To any person directly or indirectly affected, we dedicate tonight’s show and our entire time in Las Vegas to you and the memory of your loved ones,” Fisher said just seconds before the live broadcast awards show began. “You have truly amazed and inspired us with your strength, courage and resilient spirits.”
Aldean wasn’t the only big winner Sunday night. Chris Stapleton, whose wife gave birth to twins the same day as the ACMs, won for Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year. Lambert won Female Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year for “Tin Man,” and the Grand Garden crowd exploded when Old Dominion won Vocal Group of the Year.
Host and Caesars Palace resident headliner Reba McEntire, who performed her classic hit “Does He Love You” with pop superstar Kelly Clarkson—who also happens to be married to McEntire’s stepson—joked about the fact that this year’s Entertainer of the Year nominees were all male. But it was the female performances that shined brightest during this year’s awards show, at least live and in person at MGM.
Morris fired up the crowd with her catchy hit “Rich” very early in the show and New Female Vocalist of the Year Lauren Alaina provided two powerhouse performances, first a duet with Kane Brown on No. 1 hit “What Ifs” and then her own solo single “Doing Fine.” Kelsea Ballerini floated above the crowd in a neon heart while singing her new song “I Hate Love Songs” before Lambert delivered one of the most exuberant performances of the night with the blistering “Keeper of the Flame.” Lambert received her Female Vocalist of the Year award from Olympic ski legend Lindsey Vonn, who also captivated the crowd thanks to a bright yellow gown with tulle skirt.
Carrie Underwood returned to the stage for her first public performance since a November accident left her with a broken wrist and facial injury requiring more than 40 stitches She sang new single “Cry Pretty” and received an extended standing ovation. A few minutes later, she joined Keith Urban to accept the award for Vocal Event of the Year for their collaboration “The Fighter.”
The ACM crowd also went wild for the show’s “flashback” performances: the Reba-Kelly duet, Jon Pardi teaming with Alan Jackson for “Chatahoochie” and Blake Shelton bringing Toby Keith to the stage for “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.”