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“This win felt almost like that first time,” Paisley said, adding: “I’ve lost a lot of money this evening and not at the gaming tables. I really thought, `That’s it.’”

Sugarland won its second vocal duo of the year award, The Band Perry took home two trophies, including top new artist, and Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson won top vocal event for their collaboration on “As She’s Walking Away.”

While the awards are the point of the show, there were a number of blockbuster performances that featured unexpected mashups. Paisley kicked things off with a raucous performance of his new song “Old Alabama” with members of the iconic country supergroup Alabama. Steven Tyler and Carrie Underwood rocked out to “Undo It” then segued to the Aerosmith classic “Walk This Way.” James Taylor, who Brown calls his greatest influence, joined the singer’s band on a medley of “Colder Weather” and “Sweet Baby James,” and Rihanna, sporting a flaming reddish-orange pixie haircut, performed her song “California King Bed” with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles.

“She is a wonderful performer,” Nettles told reporters later. “Obviously, country music is hip and it’s cool and it’s fresh, and I think her being here tonight is even more testimony to that.”