NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — In surprise twist that fit an unexpected year of firsts, Carrie Underwood and Thomas Rhett tied for entertainer of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, the first time the top prize has ever been split between two artists.
Underwood and Rhett seemed equally surprised after host Keith Urban announced the tie at the awards show held at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tennessee, on Wednesday.
“Keith, what is happening right now?” Rhett asked, astounded, before thanking his family. Underwood appeared right after him remarking, “2020, right?” before adding, “I am more than happy to share this with Thomas Rhett.”
The show on CBS had been delayed for months because of the pandemic, was moved from Las Vegas to Nashville for the first time and held without audiences in empty venues. There was a lot of anticipation for the show, which featured Taylor Swift making her first appearance at the ACMs in seven years.
Underwood's win is her third total in that category and Rhett's first win. Coincidentally, a woman hasn't won that award since 2011 when Swift last won it.
Swift’s acoustic performance of “betty” from her new album “Folklore,” was simple with just a couple of stage floodlights and a harmonica player for accompaniment, but her smile glowed as she strummed and sang the heartbreak song.
Luke Combs, who had also been nominated for entertainer of the year, still went home a winner by picking up album of the year and male artist of the year. Amassing tremendous streaming numbers in his first couple years, Combs thanked fans for their support from the Bluebird Cafe.
“This is a lot to process right now, I just can’t believe this,” Combs said. “I just want to thank everybody in my life, my team, my beautiful wife and the fans. You guys have done everything for me. ”
Country group Old Dominion won song of the year and group of the year, as they acknowledged how the empty seats in front of them reminded them of people who they had lost.
The awards show aired from empty venues in Nashville with no fans and no applause, even when winners got up live to accept their awards. Matthew Ramsey, lead singer of Old Dominion, said the empty venue and quiet made him think of friends and family they had lost.
“I can feel them all,” Ramsey said on the stage of the Opry House as he accepted the award for song of the year for “One Man Band.” “They are so proud, and it’s such an honor to receive this in their presence.”
Host Keith Urban noted all the changes this year for the show and for the country in general, saying 2020 has been an “unpredictable and unsettling year.” After noting wildfires on the West Coast, hurricanes in the South, Urban said the country is battling two pandemics: COVID-19 and social injustice.
“Far too many lives have been lost to both,” he said. “But the examples set by essential workers, our first responders, along with the voices crying out for equality in all walks of life, have echoed around the world and right here in our country community.”
Maren Morris, who was a leading nominee, won two awards, including female artist of the year and music event of the year.
“This is so weird talking to no one, but I have so many people to thank. This is an award that I never expected to win,” said the new mother, who thanked her husband and baby boy, Hayes, before blurting out “Oh my God, I have to pee!”
Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, who weren't in Nashville, were in a green screen room that turned into a virtual replica of the Bluebird for their duet “Happy Anywhere.” Shelton won single of the year for his song, “God's Country.”
Miranda Lambert performed a stripped-down version of her No. 1 song “Bluebird,” at the Bluebird Cafe in a blue fringed shirt and a sparkly belt. Lambert’s vocals seemed to fill up the space in the tiny songwriters' club surrounded by tables and chairs, but no fans.
Underwood sang a tribute to iconic female Opry members, including Patsy Cline, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Barbara Mandrell, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. She effortlessly breezed through snippets of classics like “Crazy,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That,” and “Fancy.”
“They are some of my heroes and I am so honored to stand alongside them as a fellow member of the Opry,” said Underwood, who sang her heart out to a venue that flickered with lights where people should have been.
The eligibility period for this year’s show was calendar year 2019 and voting ended before the pandemic hit.