NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Chris Stapleton won the first trophy of the 55th annual Country Music Association Awards on Wednesday, taking song of the year for “Starting Over” to begin what could be a big night for one of the show’s top nominees.
Host Luke Bryan was joined by his “American Idol” co-hosts Lionel Richie and Katy Perry midway through his opening monologue at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, to present the award.
“I have hosted other awards shows,” Bryan told his “Idol” co-hosts, pretending to be surprised after they sneaked up on him. “I can handle this myself.”
Perry answered, “Yeah, we’ve seen them, that’s why we’re here.”
Miranda Lambert opened the ABC telecast with a medley of her hits, including “Kerosene,” “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Gunpowder & Lead.”
Lambert, the most nominated woman in CMAs history, is up this year for the night’s biggest prize, entertainer of the year.
Stapleton and Eric Church are the top nominees with five apiece. They’ll be going toe-to-toe all night with nominations in the same five categories, including entertainer of the year, male vocalist of the year, and album of the year.
Luke Combs could be named male vocalist of the year for the third straight time, could take song of the year for “Forever after All,” and could win entertainer of the year for the first time.
The ceremony represents a return to normal for the show. It’s back in front of an audience at its usual home after last year’s ceremony was held at a crowd-free Music City Center because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re following all the health protocols to keep everyone safe,” Bryan said during his opening. “And we’re all vaccinated,” he said, “or not,” asking the laughing audience, “anyone?”
In awards announced before the show Wednesday, “half of my hometown” by Kelsea Ballerini featuring Kenny Chesney won musical event of the year and music video of the year.
Underwood is also up for entertainer of the year. Either she or Lambert would be the first woman to win the award since Taylor Swift in 2011.
In a year when the major categories are dominated by male nominees, Gabby Barrett is the night’s most nominated woman with four nods, including female artist of the year, new artist and single and song of the year for her hit “The Good Ones.”
Underwood and Jason Aldean will headline a series of all-star collaborations as they perform their current hit “If I Didn’t Love You.” Kane Brown and Chris Young will sing their duet “Famous Friends,” which is nominated in three categories.
Other performers include the Brothers Osborne, Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde, and Mickey Guyton with Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards.
Morgan Wallen, who was caught earlier this year yelling a racial slur, is disqualified from many major awards and won’t be in attendance, but could still end up with one of the night’s biggest prizes after an album-of-the-year nomination for “Dangerous: The Double Album,” which was among the year’s best selling records.
The CMA Board of Directors said that Wallen, who in 2020 won new artist of the year, would not be eligible for awards that honor the individual, only those that honor the work.
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