- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 9, 2011

NASHVILLE, TENN. (AP) - Blake Shelton and Kenny Loggins opened an eclectic Country Music Association Awards with a high-energy version of Loggins‘ hit “Footloose,” but Hank Williams Jr. stole the show.

Williams appeared during the opening skit Wednesday night with hosts Brad 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 … This is rockin’ Bradcephus,” Paisley sang before Underwood warned him he might draw Williams‘ ire.

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 crowd.

The theme of the night quickly became country crossovers with Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson teaming to win musical event of the year on “Don’t You Want to Stay” and Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter winning video of the year for their steamy “You and Tequila.”

The Band Perry won single of the year for their surprise breakthrough “If I Die Young.”

On the red carpet, the genre-mixing was in high gear. Lionel Richie was the star of the night, receiving excited hugs and informal tributes from stars like Lady Antebellum, Darius Rucker and Lambert, who posed for a picture with Richie. Kenny Chesney said he once gave a girl a mixtape of Richie’s songs in high school.

The focus of the night is the entertainer of the year where most of country’s biggest stars are featured.

Jason Aldean and Shelton are new additions to the category.

“Every few years you kind of start to see a changeover of everything,” Aldean said. “You start to see different people getting into categories they weren’t before. It’s like the changing of the guard a little bit.”

The two rising stars got to the ballot by taking very different paths, but they’ve both created a buzz around these awards and in the industry.

Aldean built his audience on the road, while Shelton capitalized on several high-profile events, including his role as a coach on “The Voice,” to raise his profile beyond the traditional country music audience.

Both have had a string of hits, but with markedly different sounds. Shelton, the reigning CMA male vocalist of the year, is a mellow baritone with something of a traditionalist approach spiked by humor. Aldean cranks up the guitars and mines a newer sound.

They face Taylor Swift, Paisley and Keith Urban _ all previous winners.

It’s often de rigueur to feign indifference at award shows, but in this case both are openly appreciative of what even a nomination in the category means.

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