Changing of the guard: Luke Combs wins Entertainer of the Year at surprise-filled CMA Awards

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It was a night of surprises at the 55th Annual CMA Awards Wednesday night. While Chris Stapleton was the night’s big winner, taking home Single, Song and Album of the Year — not to mention Male Vocalist — many of the artists taking home trophies were unexpected… and some even made history.

Let’s start with Luke Combs, who was named Entertainer of the Year for the first time, beating long-established stars like Eric Church, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood.  “I’m really kind of at a loss,” said the shocked hitmaker, adding, “Every single person that was nominated for this award this year, and every year before, deserves to win this. I don’t deserve to win it, but I’m sure as hell glad that I did!”

Carly Pearce won her first-ever Female Vocalist of the Year trophy and was so emotional that her friend Ashley McBryde got onstage and spoke for her.  “What she meant to say was, ‘There’s a lot of love, respect and admiration in this category,’” laughed Ashley, before nudging Carly forward.

“I’ve had just, had, like a crazy year,” Carly sobbed. “And I just want you guys to know that this means everything to me. Country music saved me at a time that I needed it and I just hope you guys know that this is all I’ve ever wanted in the entire world.”

Jimmie Allen was named New Artist of the Year, becoming only the second Black performer ever to do so. Darius Rucker was the first, back in 2009.  Jimmie recalled how, five years ago, he spent his last $100 to attend the CMA Awards so he could watch the late Charley Pride perform, and how, last year, he and Pride got to perform on the show together.

Brothers Osborne were named Vocal Duo of the Year, a category they last won in 2018.  TJ Osborne, who came out this year, kissed his boyfriend before taking the stage with brother John.  “It’s been a crazy roller coaster of a year for us in so many ways, especially for me emotionally,” TJ said. “And to have you all support me, it really does feel like love wins tonight.”

Later, Brothers Osborne sang their powerful song “Younger Me,” which TJ introduced by explaining that while growing up watching the CMAs, he never thought he could be a part of it because of his sexuality.

Another powerful moment came when a young Black girl named Faith Fennidy introduced Mickey Guyton‘s performance of the song “Love My Hair,” explaining that she had inspired Mickey to write the song after she was sent home from school because her braids were “distracting.”  Mickey sang the song with Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards; all three women wore big, natural hair styles.

And in a moment reminiscent of the 2015 CMAs, when Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake brought down the house, Jennifer Hudson and Chris Stapleton did it again with their soulful duet of “You Are My Sunshine,” which Chris and his wife Morgane originally cut for the 2016 compilation album Southern Family.  Stapleton also played guitar as Hudson sang Aretha Franklin‘s arrangement of Willie Nelson‘s “Night Life.”

Other highlights of the night included Luke Combs debuting his new song “Doin’ It;” Ashley McBryde and Carly Pearce duetting on “Never Wanted to Be That Girl;” Carrie Underwood and Jason Aldean singing “If I Didn’t Love You” and Deana Carter and Lainey Wilson leading the entire Bridgestone Arena in a singalong of Deana’s classic “Strawberry Wine.”

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