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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.

Shelton, McGraw and his wife Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum and Keith Urban joined together to salute lifetime achievement winner Willie Nelson, ending with a group sing-along of his iconic “On the Road Again.”

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, the song has a sharper groove than LBT’s previous efforts.

In a coincidence, Joyce also produced Church’s “Chief.” The hard edge he brought to both paid off all around.

Church said album of the year, arguably the CMA’s second most prestigious award, was a win that fit right in with his and Joyce’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.