By Robert Galbraith
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – Country music veteran George Strait and singer Miranda Lambert led the winners at the 49th Academy of Country Music awards, while the genre’s biggest names, including Blake Shelton, Lady Antebellum, Eric Church and Keith Urban, sang their hits.
Strait, 61, won the night’s top prize of Entertainer of the Year, beating out Lambert, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift. Bryan won the title last year.
“Wow. Thank you so much. You know what, I’ve always said I’ve had the best fans in the world and I heard this was a fan voted thing, so I rest my case. This is so amazing, it’s been such an amazing past 30 years,” Strait said.
Shelton, who co-hosted the awards show with Bryan, added “our hero won tonight.”
Lambert won female vocalist, beating out Sheryl Crow, Kacey Musgraves, Carrie Underwood and Swift, and also won single record of the year for her hit “Mama’s Broken Heart.”
“I’m so grateful and thankful and humbled,” the singer said.
The Academy of Country Music is an organization of music industry professionals who aim to promote and preserve the tradition of country music, and they vote for the top country music achievers for their annual awards ceremony.
Jason Aldean won male vocalist for the second consecutive year, calling the win “an even bigger shock this year.”
Rising artist Kacey Musgraves picked up album of the year for her debut studio record “Same Trailer Different Park.”
“I just want to say I’m really proud to be a woman representing country music,” the 25-year-old singer said.
The award for song of the year, which goes to songwriters and composers, was given to Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck.” The song was inspired by Paul Monti, the father of U.S. soldier Jared Monti who was killed in Afghanistan in 2006.
“We’re so honored and grateful for the outpouring response to this song,” songwriter Connie Harrington said in tears, adding “Paul Monti and family and to every person in America that knows what it’s like to live the words of this song, day in and day out, God bless.”
PERFORMANCES SPAN COUNTRY MUSIC GENRE
The three-hour show televised live on CBS gave out a handful of awards in between performances from artists spanning the spectrum from country music, from Brett Eldredge’s summery song “Beat of the Music” to Shelton’s intimate performance of “My Eyes” featuring Gwen Sebastian.
The first award of the night was given to Nashville band Florida Georgia Line, formed by Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, who won vocal duo of the year. The band, which won the coveted New Artist of the Year award last year, presented this year’s fan-voted accolade in the category to newcomer Justin Moore.
Moore, donning a white cowboy hat on stage, gave a tear-filled speech, saying “Country radio, thank you for giving me a voice and taking a chance on a hillbilly from Arkansas.”
Bryan and Shelton peppered Sunday’s awards ceremony at the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas with quips about each other, their fellow musicians and issues such as marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage.
“If you don’t like live music, you need to go down the block and see Britney Spears,” Shelton joked in the presence of pop singer Spears’ younger sister Jamie Lynn, who is currently trying to carve out a career in country music.
Shelton also took the stage to sing with his fellow judge from NBC’s “The Voice” judges panel, Colombian singer Shakira, singing their duet “Medicine.”
Other duets included Florida Georgia Line joining Bryan to sing their song “This is How We Roll,” Tim McGraw and Faith Hill joining forces for “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” and Dierks Bentley and Sheryl Crow singing their hit “I Hold On.”
Sibling group The Band Perry kicked off the awards with its hit “Chainsaw,” and picked up the award for vocal group of the year. Brad Paisley entertained the poolside crew with his latest song “River Bank,” Hunter Hayes belted out his inspiration ballad “Invisible,” and singer Stevie Nicks joined Lady Antebellum to sing “Golden” and Nick’s classic song “Rhiannon.”
Lady Antebellum also joined Darius Rucker to sing the folksy “Wagon Wheel,” as the entire audience sang along.
Church belted out his anthem “Give Me Back My Hometown,” Urban added some rock’n’roll with “Even The Stars Fall 4 U,” while veteran singer Strait received a standing ovation after performing his new song “I Got a Car.”
Veteran country musician Merle Haggard was given the Crystal Milestone accolade honoring his career on his 77th birthday on Sunday, while the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
“Country music’s been great to me all my life and it’s great again tonight,” the singer said.
The full list of winners is:
Entertainer of the Year: George Strait
Album of the Year: Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves
Female Vocalist of the Year: Miranda Lambert
Vocal Group of the Year: The Band Perry
Male Vocalist of the Year: Jason Aldean
Song of the Year: I Drive Your Truck by Lee Brice
Record of the Year: Mama’s Broken Heart by Miranda Lambert
New Artist of the Year: Justin Moore
Vocal Duo of the Year: Florida Georgia Line
Vocal Event of the Year: We Were Us by Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert
Crystal Milestone Award: Merle Haggard
Video of the Year: Highway Don’t Care by Tim McGraw, featuring Taylor Swift & Keith Urban
Gene Weed Special Achievement Award: Carrie Underwood
Career Achievement Award: Toby Keith and Ronnie Milsap
Jim Reeves International Award: Rascal Flatts
(Writing by Piya Sinha-Roy in Los Angeles; Editing by Eric Walsh and Michael Perry)