But one of the night's more poignant moments came from a winner who wasn't even there — Keith Urban. The Aussie country star, who last month entered a rehabilitation center for alcohol abuse, won male vocalist of the year for the second year in a row.
When Urban's name was announced, he received a standing ovation, and his award was accepted by Ronnie Dunn. Dunn read a letter from Urban in which he thanked his friends and family and actress-wife Nicole Kidman, whom he married earlier this year: "To my wife, Nicole, I love you."
"I'm looking forward to coming home and seeing you all soon," Urban said in the letter.
Dunn added: "We love you Keith — good luck, brother."
Besides accepting the award for Urban, Dunn was busy accepting awards and also hosting the show along with his partner, Kix Brooks. The pair also won music video of the year for "Believe" and opened the night by performing "Building Bridges" with guests Vince Gill and Sheryl Crow.
"This has been another huge year for country music," Kix Brooks said. "Tonight, we're here together to show off what it's really all about, and that's the greatest music on the face of the Earth."
The gospel-tinged "Believe" was co-written by Ronnie Dunn and Craig Wiseman, who also co-wrote Tim McGraw's smash "Live Like You Were Dying." Both won song of the year honors for "Believe."
"Every time it comes on the radio now I have to pull over, like I'm hearing it for the first time," Wiseman said backstage of "Believe." "Ronnie really brought something to that song that's something beyond."
As expected, Brooks & Dunn also won vocal duo award. The group has owned the category since 1992, winning every years except in 2000 when Montgomery Gentry won.
The multiplatinum band Rascal Flatts took the vocal group award, capping what singer Gary LeVox described as an "amazing year."
"I thank God for giving us a stage to stand on and perform on every night," LeVox said.
Brad Paisley, who was shut out last year despite six nomination, went into the night with a win this year. Before Monday's show, he and Dolly Parton won musical event of the year for their spiritual song "When I Get Where I'm Going." It was Parton's first CMA award since 1996.
"I thank her so much for raising the bar on this song," Paisley said of the music icon, who was not there to accept. "Any time Dolly Parton sings on a song it becomes instantly better in every way."
The show returned to Nashville after one year in New York City. Brooks & Dunn and Paisley led all nominees with six.
Other multiple nominees included Kenny Chesney and "American Idol" winner Carrie Underwood with four each, and Rascal Flatts and Dolly Parton with three apiece.
All three of Parton's nods were for her vocals on Paisley's "When I Get Where I'm Going." The song was one of three spiritually themed tunes up for awards, the others being Brooks & Dunn's "Believe" and Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel."
The evening's performers included Carrie Underwood, who won the horizon award; Gretchen Wilson, Paisley, Chesney and Martina McBride.
Much offstage talk centered on two high-profile nominees: Sara Evans and Urban.
Evans dropped out of the reality TV show "Dancing with the Stars" and filed for a divorce a few weeks ago, making several unseemly charges against her husband, former Republican Congressional candidate Craig Schelske, who denied the allegations and countered with charges of his own.
Evans, 35, was nominated for female vocalist of the year and was to sing her hit, "Real Fine Place To Start."
Urban, whose new album was released this week, canceled all publicity appearances after announcing last month that he had checked into a rehabilitation treatment center. The revelation came less than four months after the Grammy-winning singer's marriage to Kidman.
This year's show also is notable for superstar George Strait's induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Strait, 54, broke onto the charts in 1981 with "Unwound" and is still having hits. He performed his latest No. 1 single, "Give It Away."
"Who would have thought it?" Strait said in accepting the honor. He got a big cheer when he thanked his fans and remarked, "Don't think I don't realize why I'm here."
The nominees and winners are determined by the 6,000 members of the CMA.