Garth Brooks named Dolly Parton the GOAT of country music, Chris Stapleton won his first-ever entertainer of the year title and Lainey Wilson continued her rise to stardom at the 2023 Academy of Country Music Awards.
Parton closed the two-hour awards show Thursday with a performance of her rock anthem “World on Fire,” taken from her upcoming rock debut Rock Star. The song features lyrics like, “Don’t get me started on politics/Now how are we to live in a world like this?”
Fire burst from the stage during the performance, which featured a full band and 10 dancers.
“Country music’s rock star,” co-host Brooks said as he introduced the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and fellow host.
Early in the night, Brooks rattled off names like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Buck Owens, Charley Pride, George Strait, Keith Whitley and Randy Travis when trying to select the greatest of all time in country music.
“What makes up the GOAT? Picking, singing, musicianship, awards … then you add the last category: time/length of career. People, I’m not so sure that last one doesn’t make the king of country music a female,” he said. “That’s right, and that female is in the house tonight, Texas. Give it up for the GOAT, Dolly Parton.”
The icon strutted onstage to “9 to 5” with a goat. “Did I hear you say you were looking for a goat? Well, I got your goat right here Garth,” she said to laughs.
Parton also joked about the meaning of GOAT. “Saw you online telling all those nice people out there that I’m your hall pass. Yeah. It’s what he said. And that I’m Trish’s hall pass, too. Hey, I just had a thought. I know why you’re doing that GOAT thing: I think that stands for ‘Garth Organized a Threesome.’”
The pair hosted the commercial-free show (sans Amazon Prime Video programming ads) from Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas.
Stapleton, who has won eight Grammy Awards, 15 ACMs and 20 Country Music Association Awards, took home the top prize for the first time. Stapleton has never won entertainer of the year at the CMAs despite multiple nominations.
“Well, I’m shocked, truly. By any imaginable metric I don’t deserve this but thank you,” he said. “I stand up and I play music. That’s what I try to do every night. I write songs and I make records … I never thought of myself as somebody who’d win this award.”
Stapleton went on to thank his children and wife, fellow singer Morgane Stapleton, who was shocked when her husband’s name was called out.
“My kids sitting at home, they give up a lot of my time, a lot of my wife’s time so we can do this,” he said. “This is for them.”
Stapleton beat out major acts to take home the award, including last year’s winner Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, Luke Combs, Carrie Underwood, Kane Brown and Morgan Wallen, who was named male vocalist of the year but had to back out of the awards show because of his vocal cord injury.
“We all know what it takes to win this award, to put in all that work. To win it is one thing, to be here not to get it must be killing him, so let’s all celebrate,” Brooks said in Wallen’s honor.
Hardy and Wilson were the big winners of the night, each winning four awards. Together, they picked up music event of the year and visual media of the year for the murder ballad “wait in the truck,” which tells a story of revenge after domestic violence upon a girl.
“Thank you, everybody, for resonating with this song, especially something of this subject,” said Hardy, who was also named artist-songwriter of the year.
“I didn’t want people to relate to this song, but it’s true, a lot of people do, so this one is for y’all,” Wilson added.
The songstress also won female vocalist of the year and album of the year for Bell Bottom Country.
“For the little girls watching this — this right here stands for hard work. If you’re gonna be a dreamer you better be a do’er,” she said.
The night was filled with more passionate moments onstage. Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey offered an emotional speech to the audience and viewers when his band won group of the year.
“I also know that there are people obviously hurting in the world right now, trying to figure out how to make sense of divisiveness, and shootings, and things like that. And there are people that are really hurting right now, and we are still proud to be in a room full of country music fans and make music for those people, but we’re most proud to be able to make music for people that are hurting right now,” said Ramsey, who was using a cane after fracturing his pelvis in three places in a March ATV accident.
“So thank you for including us in this party, and allowing us to make music for whoever needs it. We will continue to try and do so, and thank you to my friends here for holding me up when I needed it,” he continued.
Cole Swindell was teary-eyed when winning song of the year for “She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” which he co-wrote with Thomas Rhett and samples Jo Dee Messina’s 1996 hit “Heads Carolina, Tails California.” The song — which Swindell performed alongside Messina — also won single of the year.
“There’s a kid watching this tonight that’s going to get inspired by somebody’s song and they’re going to follow it up and chase the dream like we all have,” he said.
Genre-bending artist Jelly Roll also let the tears roll after giving a touching and heartfelt performance of his song “Save Me,” which he performed with Wilson.
“I love you buddy,” she said after the performance.
The War and Treaty, who made history as the first Black duo nominated for duo of the year, also had a groundbreaking performance and earned a standing ovation. The married couple performed “Blank Page” sitting down, facing one another, holding hands and delivering soulful vocals — all while the audience watched in awe, including Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban.
“That’s what you wanna do in music right there,” Brooks exclaimed after the performance.
“That’s fantastic,” Parton added.
Ed Sheeran joined forces with Luke Combs to perform “Life Goes On,” a song about the death of his best friend Jamal Edwards, who helped the English singer launch his career. Rising singer Bailey Zimmerman impressed with a performance of his Top 10 pop hit “Rock and a Hard Place”; Hardy rocked out so hard his hair stood straight up with static electricity to match his performance of “Truck Bed”; and Cody Johnson honored Willie Nelson, who turned 90 last month, with a performance of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” which the icon and Waylon Jennings released in 1978. It topped the country charts and won the duo a Grammy.
Parton even broke into song, singing the traditional gospel hymn “Precious Memories” when remembering the late country superstars Loretta Lynn and Naomi Judd, who both died last year.
She also gave a shout-out to Nelson, who appeared on-screen via video call. He thanked Parton for sending him flowers and asked Brooks if his gift was still on the way.
Nelson said, “Dolly got it right. I love all kinds of flowers, and plants too.”