Kenny Chesney took home entertainer of the year honors while Arista Nashville labelmates Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley each won two crystal trophies at the 41st annual Country Music Association Awards, held tonight (Nov. 7) in Nashville.
Chesney's win was his second straight in the category and third in the last four years. While thanking his label, fans and radio, Chesney also threw a shout out to his hero and friend. "I want to thank George Strait for paying for dinner last night," he said with a laugh.
Underwood won top female honors for the second straight year, while her song "Before He Cheats," produced by Mark Bright, took home top single honors. The song spent five weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs last year. "I honestly didn't expect it at all," Underwood said backstage of her female nod.
Meanwhile, Paisley took home his first male vocalist trophy. "I always wanted to win this award once; this'll do," the seven-time nominee said while accepting the honor. Paisley's "Online," which was directed by Jason Alexander of "Seinfeld" fame, nabbed top video honors.
Strait's "It Just Comes Natural," which was co-produced by Tony Brown and Strait, was named album of the year. It was Strait's sixth win in the category and 18th CMA Award overall. "It's unbelievable to still be here," he said backstage. "When I walk on stage I still love it much as I ever did. The whole process of putting together a record is still fun for us."
Songwriters Bill Anderson, Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson won song of the year honors for Strait's "Give It Away, a song about divorce that spent two weeks at No. 1 in the fall of 2006. It was the second song of the year award for the 70-year-old Anderson, who also won in 2005 for "Whiskey Lullaby." "Y'all been lettin' me do this for 50 years and I love you," Anderson said in accepting the award.
Johnson, who was going through a divorce when the song was written, scored the line of the night during his turn at the mic. "I wanna thank my ex-wife Amy," he said, allowing a long pause for effect, "for being such a good mother to my kid. She surely deserves half of this song and half of this award too."
Seventeen-year-old Taylor Swift took home the Horizon award. "I can't even believe this; this is definitely the highlight of my senior year," a tearful Swift said in accepting the award. Her self-titled debut has sold 1.45 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and has scored three top 10 airplay singles.
Underdog Tracy Lawrence picked up his first CMA Award, for musical event for "Find Out Who Your Friends Are," a collaboration with Tim McGraw and Chesney. The song, which was released on Lawrence's own Rocky Comfort Records, reached No. 1 on Hot Country Songs in June and spent 44 weeks on the chart.
Sugarland, who also performed current single "Stay" on the show, were surprise winners as top vocal duo. Brooks & Dunn have long dominated the category, winning six straight years and 14 times overall. "It feels shocking -- it feels like a nervous wreck," Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles said backstage. "Mixed with bungee jumping," partner Kristian Bush chimed in.
Rascal Flatts, who opened the show with "Still Feels Good" and who closed out the performances with "She Goes All The Way," a duet with Jamie Foxx, won its fifth straight vocal group award. Musician of the year honors went to dobro player Jerry Douglas, an artist in his own right as well as a member of Alison Kraus & Union Station.
The Eagles, who debuted earlier in the day at No. 1 on both The Billboard 200 and Top Country Albums charts, made their first ever award show performance, performing "How Long" which is currently at No. 27 on Hot Country Songs. The audience responded with a standing ovation.
The show was staged for the second straight year at Nashville's Sommet Center and was broadcast on ABC. For the first time, the show employed multiple hosts. Country stars Sara Evans and LeAnn Rimes shared duties with ABC stars James Denton ("Desperate Housewives"), Kimberly Williams Paisley ("According to Jim") and Kate Walsh ("Grey's Anatomy").
Additional reporting by Keith Caulfield, L.A.