Aldean, Church, Bryan unite to kick off CMA Awards

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NASHVILLE, TENN. (AP) - Country music’s fastest rising stars Jason Aldean, Eric Church and Luke Bryan kicked off the Country Music Association Awards 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 Thursday night at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for the celebration with many slated to perform. Taylor Swift arrived in a detailed red lace dress to some of the night’s loudest cheers and mingled with fans who had made signs to draw her attention. Art imitated life as stars from the new ABC drama “Nashville” like Hayden Panetierre mingled with the folks they mimic, drawing just as many screams.

Still to come were a tribute to Willie Nelson featuring Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Blake Shelton and Lady Antebellum, and performances by most of the night’s top nominees, including Swift, Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney.

Co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood poked a little fun at the night’s guest of honor.

“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.

“Because Willie,” Underwood said, “it appears there’s been some doping charges.”

The 79-year-old Nelson walked the carpet before the show with his wife, Annie. One of the most beloved figures in not just country music, but American popular culture, Nelson was stopped several times for hugs. He deflected most questions about the lifetime achievement award he would be receiving with jokes.

“It’s a great honor and I’m glad I achieved something,” he said.

Little Big Town won the first award of the telecast, taking single of the year for their rockin’ new song “Pontoon.”

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 Jason, 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.

He’s not the only one. Country performers who have tasted their most significant success within the last five years outnumber the more established stars who’ve counted hits for a decade or more. Those newer artists also received the lion’s share of the nominations.

That may not be unusual in the pop, rock and hip-hop worlds. But country has long been a genre defined by listeners _ and often stars _ 35 and over.

The CMAs show that time may be over.

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