NASHVILLE, TENN. (AP) - After years of feeling like outsiders, Little Big Town and Eric Church finally found acceptance at the Country Music Association Awards.
Beloved veteran quartet Little Big Town was the early leader Thursday night during the awards, winning vocal group and single of the year for their breakthrough hit "Pontoon."
"Y'all, this has been a 13-year journey," Karen Fairchild said as members of the group fist-pumped, jumped up and down and shouted on stage. "We're living proof that if you work really hard and chase your dream, all the good stuff happens and it follows you. Nashville, you made us your band. Thank you for letting us do this."
Like LBT, Church was feeling the love from the CMA's voters for the first time. He won the prestigious 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' most emotional moments in recent memory, husband and wife stars Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert won song of the year for "Over You."
As Lambert openly wept on stage, Shelton recounted for the ABC television audience how the loss of his older brother, Richie, and father, Dick, spurred the couple to write the heart-rending 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 night continued to get better for Shelton, who won male vocalist for the third straight year.
"I'm going to be totally honest: I've had a few drinks since the song of the year announcement," Shelton joked. "I was actually sitting there thinking either Jason or Eric was gonna win this, so I'm going to have wing it."
The awards went off-script early, and not just for Little Big Town. Thompson Square also earned an unexpected win, taking vocal duo of the year. The husband and wife duo of Keifer and Shawna Thompson ended Sugarland's five-year run in that category. That award has gone to either Sugarland or Brooks & Dunn 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.
Hunter Hayes won new artist of the year, while Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw won musical event of the year for "Party Like a Rock Star" and Toby Keith won video of the year for "Red Solo Cup."
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."
AP writer Kristin M. Hall in Nashville contributed to this report.