Little Big Town, Church take major wins at CMAs

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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.

Co-hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley opened the show with a country version of Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”: “We got moves like Haggard.” They also 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 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.”

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

“Guilty!” said Nelson, a noted marijuana advocate.

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.

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, who’s career started in the rock world and also produced Church’s “Chief,” 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 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. Album of the year is arguable 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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AP writer Kristin M. Hall in Nashville contributed to this report.

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