Garth Brooks, who lost entertainer of the year at last year’s Country Music Association Awards when he returned to music after a 13-year break, won the top prize at the show Wednesday, where Beyonce and the Dixie Chicks’ surprise duet performance was met with love and hate.
Brooks beat out Carrie Underwood, Chris Stapleton, Keith Urban and last year’s winner, Luke Bryan.
“We are so damn lucky to part of this thing called country music,” Brooks yelled loudly at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.
Taylor Swift presented Brooks the award, but she wasn’t the only pop star in the building: Beyonce sang her twangy song “Daddy Lessons” on a night celebrating the CMA Awards’ 50th anniversary. It was the first time Beyonce, a Houston native, performed at the country awards show. The performance also marked a return for the Dixie Chicks, who hadn’t attended the CMA Awards in some time.
“Everybody get on your feet. Put your hands together,” Beyonce told the crowd.
The diva sported a sheer champagne-colored dress that plunged in the center and layered pearls around her neck. Faith Hill sang along, Trisha Yearwood clapped and Miranda Lambert moved side to side during the song, which the Dixie Chicks have also covered at their live shows.
Beyonce and the trio’s appearance, though, wasn’t cheered by everyone: On social media some fans tweeted angrily about the performance – some country music fans have disliked Dixie Chicks since band member Natalie Maines criticized former U.S. President George W. Bush over a decade ago.
The night featured a number of other memorable performances, too: A mix of classic and contemporary country stars kicked off the show with 12 performances to celebrate its milestone anniversary, which included Randy Travis, Vince Gill, Charley Pride, Roy Clark, Alabama, Charlie Daniels, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam and Merle Haggard’s youngest son, Ben.
Dolly Parton, who earned the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, was honored by Reba, Underwood, Martina McBride, Jennifer Nettles and Kacey Musgraves, who all sang a rousing rendition of “I Will Always Love You.”
“I would have cried, but I didn’t want to mess up my eyelashes,” said Parton, sporting a bright yellow dress.
Chris Stapleton, who won big at last year’s show, was the night’s top winner with two: He took home male vocalist and music video of the year.
“What a wonderful night … I’ve cried just watching everybody,” said Stapleton, who walked into the show as the top nominee along with Eric Church and newcomer Maren Morris.
Underwood won female vocalist of the year, ending Lambert’s six-year consecutive winning streak since 2010.
“Glory to God, thank you Jesus,” said a teary Underwood, who also thanked her husband and son.
Church won album of the year for “Mr. Misunderstood” and Morris picked up new artist of the year.
“Last year, I sat across the street at a bar and watched this show. I never thought as a songwriter I’d be standing here today,” she said.
A number of celebrities were in the audience and presented awards, including Matthew McConaughey, Peyton Manning, Jennifer Garner, Olivia Newton-John, Nicole Kidman, Lily Tomlin, Sharon Stone and the Final Five Olympic gymnasts: Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian.
Paisley and Underwood, returning as hosts for the ninth time, told jokes about politics, Wikileaks, Brangelina’s breakup and more.
“We’re so sick of politics, we don’t even care who wins,” they sang in harmony. At one point, Paisley called Underwood a “nasty woman,” mocking Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
The three-hour-plus show, which aired on ABC, also featured performances by George Strait, Brooks & Dunn, Jason Aldean and Little Big Town, who sang their new song “Better Man,” written by Swift.
The first award of the night went to Thomas Rhett, who won single of the year for “Die a Happy Man.”
“I gotta first thank the Lord … my lovely wife in the blue dress; she was the full inspiration of this song,” said Rhett.
Lori McKenna won song of the year for writing Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind,” a tune she said was based on a prayer she wrote for her five children. McKenna co-wrote Little Big Town’s megahit “Girl Crush,” earning a Grammy Award this year and last year’s song of the year honor at the CMAs.
“I have a job in this town because of this guy’s wife, Faith Hill,” said McKenna, who was escorted to the stage by McGraw.
Kenny Chesney, who released a new album last week, earned the Pinnacle Award. Little Big Town and Brothers Osborne won vocal group and vocal duo of the year, respectively, while Dierks Bentley and Elle King’s “Different for Girls” won musical event of the year.