Taylor Swift won her second entertainer of the year award and rising sibling act The Band Perry was the night's top winner as The Country Music Association Awards celebrated the young women of country music on Wednesday night.
Swift was rewarded for an amazing year during which she brought country music to the Far East, scored hits all around the world and continued a run that's made her country's hottest young star for several years. She's just the second woman to win the award twice, joining Barbara Mandrell.
"This is thanks to all the fans who filled the stadiums and arenas all over the world this year," said Swift, who leaped from her seat with her hands in the air and jumped for joy. "I am so happy we had so many to play for this year. You have made my year."
It was a melancholy song about dying young that ran hard against the tried-and-true country radio formula that had everyone's attention most of the night, though. "If I Die Young," written by Kimberly Perry, won song and single of the year and the band picked up new artist of the year as well.
Technically the band, which includes Perry's brothers Neil and Reid, won two awards since song of the year goes to the writer, who was Kimberly Perry alone. But the message was the same nonetheless.
"If I Die Young" is one of the few country songs that managed to crossover into the pop world.
"We sort of feel like we are part of the country evangelism scene and we love to hear country songs on pop radio," Kimberly Perry said. "It proved to be a song with really long legs."
Crossover appeal proved to be the theme of the night. Jason Aldean, who won his first major CMA award when his platinum-selling "My Kinda Party" won album of the year, also won musical event of the year for his duet "Don't You Wanna Stay" with Kelly Clarkson. And Kenny Chesney won music video of the year for his duet "You and Tequila" with Grace Potter.
That theme also carried over to the stage where stars from different genres came together for some of the CMA's strongest performances. The show also featured plenty of sexy dancing, belching smoke special effects and, at one point, acrobats spinning down from the ceiling on lengths of unspooling fabric.
Lionel Richie had every star buzzing on the red carpet before performing duets from his new country album with Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker and Little Big Town. He posed for a picture with Miranda Lambert and gave advice to Lady Antebellum on the red carpet.
Gregg Allman joined fellow Peach State natives Zac Brown Band on "Georgia on my Mind," Natasha Bedingfield, in a dress that featured a fluffy red skirt, joined Rascal Flatts on stage to perform their duet "Easy," and that was just the start of genre shuffling.
Blake Shelton and Kenny Loggins opened the show with a high-energy version of Loggins' hit "Footloose." Later, Glen Campbell, one of country's biggest crossover pioneers who is now battling Alzheimer's disease, was given a musical tribute when Vince Gill, Keith Urban and Brad Paisley sang three of his songs.
Richie, who will soon issue a country duets album, hadn't performed on the CMAs since 1986 when he appeared with Alabama. He noted the show has changed dramatically over the decades, as has country music.
"It's Cirque de Soleil ... it's full-on production," Richie said. "This is off-the-chain, this is the Oscars of the music business, the CMAs."
Lady Antebellum won vocal group of the year for the third straight time and Sugarland took its fifth straight vocal duo of the year award. And Shelton and his wife Lambert repeated as male and female vocalists of the year.
"Congrats to my hubby, too," Lambert shouted from the stage to Shelton. "It's going to be a good night tonight, baby!" The camera cut to Shelton, who rubbed his hands together and smiled devilishly.
It wasn't the night's only funny moment.
Hank Williams Jr. appeared during the opening skit with hosts Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who lampooned his recent troubles with ESPN and his "Monday Night Football" theme song. Paisley brought out an acoustic guitar and began his own version of "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight."
"Are you ready for an awards show?" Paisley sang before Underwood warned him he might draw Williams' ire. Williams got into trouble for using an analogy to Adolf Hitler in discussing President Barack Obama.
As they spoke, Williams quietly walked up behind the hosts to the roar from the crowd. Asked if he wanted to say something, Williams said, "No," to the delight of the audience.
It was just one of several laugh-out-loud moments for the hosts, who trotted out Barbies of McGraw and Hill after Williams left the stage.
"I can't wait until after the show," Paisley said to Underwood. "Can we play with them now?"
The two made the dolls kiss and before checking to see if the McGraw doll was anatomically correct. "There's nothing there," Paisley said in amazement.
The camera cut to McGraw and Hill, who raised her arms and mouthed the words, "I know," receiving the night's biggest laugh.