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Shelton, Church win big at CMAs

Shelton, Church win big at CMAs © AP Shelton, Church win big at CMAs

Country's rising stars shine on the red carpet and stage

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- After years of feeling like an outsider, Eric Church found a home on Thursday night at the Country Music Association Awards.

Church won 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."

It wasn't the surprise-filled night's only surreal moment. In one of the awards show's most emotional moments in recent memory, husband and wife stars Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert won Song of the Year.

As Lambert held back tears on stage, Shelton recounted for the television audience how the loss of his older brother, Richie, and father, Dick, spurred the couple to write the song.

"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."

The win came as something of a surprise, but it fit right in to a CMA Awards that went off-script early, as Little Big Town and Thompson Square earned surprise wins.

Beloved veteran quartet Little Big Town won Single of the Year for "Pontoon," knocking off some of the most popular acts of the last year in doing so. And Thompson Square ended Sugarland's five-year run in the Vocal Duo category, an award that's gone to either Sugarland or Brooks & Dunn in 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.

Country music's fastest- rising stars Jason Aldean, Eric Church and Luke Bryan kicked off the CMAs by joining forces. 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.

Most of country's top stars were on hand at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena for the celebration, with many slated to perform. Taylor Swift arrived in a detailed red-and-nude lace dress to some of the night's loudest cheers from fans that made signs to draw her attention. Art imitated life as stars from the new drama "Nashville" like Hayden Panettiere mingled with the folks they mimic on the hour-long drama, drawing just as many screams. And many stars reflected on the tragedy brought by superstorm Sandy.

Co-hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley kicked off the show with "We Got Moves Like Haggard," a country version of Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger." They did their own version of PSY's "Gangnam Style" and riffed on Swift's hit single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," noting she is rumored to have recently broken up with boyfriend Conor Kennedy.

When Underwood informed him of the news they were unlikely to get back together, he asked: "Never?" Underwood responded, "Ever," and the two played verbal hot potato for a few seconds before Paisley ended the joke by saying, "Maybe Taylor will write a song about it."

They also poked a little fun at the night's honored guest, Willie Nelson, who was due to receive a lifetime achievement award and perform with Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum and Blake Shelton.

"Tonight we are honoring the great Willie Nelson," Paisley said, "and also simultaneously we are going to strip you of all your CMA Awards. Sorry."

"Guilty!" said Nelson, a noted marijuana advocate.

McGraw debuted the single "One of Those Nights" from his new album "Two Lanes of Freedom." Lambert, dressed in a multicolored bustier and leather pants, spun around on stage while playing her rockin' song "Fastest Girl in Town." The Band Perry delivered an energetic version of "Better Dig Two," complete with laser light show.

"Pontoon" was something of a departure for Little Big Town, whose members include Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet. Produced by Jay Joyce, whose career started in the rock world, the song has a sharper groove than LBT's previous efforts.

That song's hard edge reflects country's changing face and fan base.

From Swift's army of empowered young women to the power-drinking party boys who prefer Church and Aldean, country's audience is much different than it was 10 years ago, and that's reflected in the awards. Church benefited with a leading five nominations, including first-time appearances in the Album and Male Vocalist of the Year categories. Album of the Year is arguably the CMA's second-most prestigious award, and it was a win that fit right in with Church'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."

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