NASHVILLE - It was couples night at the Country Music Association Awards as Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert capped an emotional evening with Shelton's first entertainer of the year award.
"The Voice" star won a leading three awards, including his third straight male vocalist of the year award. Lambert won female vocalist of the year, and the couple shared song of the year for their heart-rending collaboration "Over You."
Lambert openly wept on stage in one of the more emotional CMA moments in recent memory as her husband recounted for the ABC television audience how his late father Dick spurred the couple to write the heart-rending song the loss of his brother Richie.
"My dad always told me, 'Son, you should write a song about your brother,"' Shelton said. "I lost my dad in January, and it's so amazing to me that tonight, even after he's gone, he's still right. I just needed the right person to write this song with and the right person to sing it."
Shelton and Lambert weren't the only couple with surprising wins. Little Big Town, a quartet that includes couple Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook, took home vocal group and single of the year for "Pontoon." And Thompson Square's Shawna and Keifer Thompson won vocal duo of the year, ending Sugarland's five-year run in that category.
"Y'all, this has been a 13-year journey," Karen Fairchild said as members of the group fist-pumped, jumped up and down and shouted on stage. "We're living proof that if you work really hard and chase your dream, all the good stuff happens and it follows you. Nashville, you made us your band. Thank you for letting us do this."
Like fellow outsiders LBT, Eric Church felt the love from the CMA's voters for the first time. He won the prestigious album of the year for his breakthrough record "Chief," signaling his complete acceptance by the country music community.
"I spent a lot of my career wondering where I fit in - too country, too rock," Church told the crowd. "I want to thank you guys for giving me somewhere to hang my hat tonight."
The North Carolina native was this year's leading nominee, breaking through in prestigious categories for the first time. Yet no one was more surprised than Church, who said he certainly had no expectation of winning.
"Never, especially with our journey," Church said. "I mean our path's been a little bit different. I distinctly remember playing for eight people in Amarillo, Texas, four years ago, and to go from there to here is quite surreal."
The awards went off-script early, and not just for Little Big Town. Thompson Square won in a category that's been locked up by either Sugarland or Brooks & Dunn 19 of the last 20 years.
"Ever since I was 5 years old, I used to practice in the kitchen with one of my Meemaw's Mason jars for this moment here," Shawna Thompson said.
Hunter Hayes won new artist of the year, while Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw won musical event of the year for "Party Like a Rock Star" and Toby Keith won video of the year for "Red Solo Cup."
Church helped kick off the show by combining forces with Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan. Playing with a large American flag behind them, the trio of performers teamed up on Aldean's new single "The Only Way I Know" from his new album "Night Train" and earned a standing ovation. Each returned later to play singles, showing how large a market share they now own in country music.
Most of country's top stars were on hand at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena for the celebration, with many slated to perform. Swift performed somber new single "Begin Again" on a set with a picture of the Eiffel Tower and falling leaves in the background. She received an ovation of her own.
McGraw debuted the single "One of Those Nights" from his new album "Two Lanes of Freedom." Lambert, dressed in a multi-colored bustier and leather pants, spun around on stage while performing her rockin' song "Fastest Girl in Town." The Band Perry delivered an energetic version of "Better Dig Two," complete with laser light show, and Paisley performed new single "Southern Comfort Zone," with an assist from the Brentwood Baptist choir.
Shelton, McGraw and his wife Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum and Keith Urban joined together to salute lifetime achievement winner Willie Nelson, ending with a group sing-along of his iconic "On the Road Again."
Little Big Town performed their winner "Pontoon," a song that was something of a departure for Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet. Produced by Jay Joyce, the song has a sharper groove than LBT's previous efforts.
In a coincidence, Joyce also produced Church's "Chief." The hard edge he brought to both paid off all around.
Church said album of the year, arguably the CMA's second most prestigious award, was a win that fit right in with his and Joyce's philosophy.
"I still think in this day and time the only way to really get a fan base is you've got to give them more than one chapter of a book," Church said. "They've got to read the whole book."