Lambert, 31, accepting her record sixth consecutive female vocalist of the year award, made only a glancing reference to her very public breakup with Shelton, saying “I appreciate it. I needed a bright spot this year.”
But Shelton, after five straight wins, saw newcomer Chris Stapleton snatch away the male vocalist of the year award.
Earlier at the 49th annual CMAs, Shelton, 39, was a good sport, laughing heartily as hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood mined his summer divorce from Lambert for comic fodder.
While the spotlight at one of country music’s biggest nights was trained on the one-time couple, it was Stapleton who emerged as perhaps the biggest winner, walking away with an unexpected three awards, including album of the year (“Traveller”) and new artist of the year.
In one of three acceptance speeches, an emotional Stapleton paid tribute to his father, who died two years ago.
“I made this record thinking a lot about the music he would have liked,” he said. “He would have liked to have seen this.”
The top award at the three-hour, performance-heavy ceremony broadcast live on ABC television from the Bridgestone Arena went to Luke Bryan, who kicked off his acceptance speech on a religious note, saying “Thank you lord, thank you Jesus, thank you everyone in heaven looking out for me.”
Bryan, who also took home the top prize a year ago, also paid tribute to Stapleton, saying “Watching Chris Stapleton have this night is so uplifting.”
Other big winners included Little Big Town, whose “Girl Crush” was named single of the year and also won the song of the year prize for its three female composers. The group was also named vocal group of the year by the 6,800 professional members of the CMA who choose the winners.
Florida Georgia Line won vocal duo of the year.
The show opened with a “Star Wars” takeoff featuring Underwood as Princess Leia and Paisley as Han Solo. Later “Star Trek” star William Shatner dropped in dressed as a storm trooper, joking that singer Sam Hunt’s singing mimicked his own semi-spoken style.
In a musical highlight, Justin Timberlake teamed up with Stapleton for a mashup of Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” and Timberlake’s “Drink You Away.”