NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Winning the Country Music Association Awards' entertainer of the year is a top honor and always counted as a career high point. But for Blake Shelton it wasn't even the most memorable moment of an amazing Thursday night.
"The Voice" star took home three trophies, including his third straight male vocalist victory, but nothing compared to sharing song of the year with wife Miranda Lambert. The pair wrote "Over You," about the death of Shelton's brother Richie in a car wreck 15 years ago. He said that trophy will always have a special place in their Oklahoma home.
"For me as a songwriter that is as personal as I can get," Shelton said. "So that songwriter award, song of the year award, it will have its own shelf. It will have spotlights on it and an alarm and everything. Trip wires and there will be a land mine if you walk towards it. It is a real big deal to Miranda and I."
Shelton's entertainer win was the biggest surprise of a night full of them. Even he couldn't believe he'd won the award in a field that included Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley.
"I didn't think about that tonight. I was thinking there's Taylor Swift right there," he said of the two-time entertainer of the year. "Really, this is pretty dumb that there's anyone else even nominated."
The reality, though, is Shelton capped one of the most impressive career reboots in country music history with the win. About three years ago, he was searching for a hit or a gimmick that might return him to the top of the charts, without much luck. He scored a novelty hit with Trace Adkins called "Hillbilly Bone," began a run of hits and then joined "The Voice" in a move that made him an instant celebrity outside the country world.
He hasn't sold as many records as Swift, whose "Red" just moved 1.2 million copies in its first week, or as many concert tickets as Chesney or Aldean. But his leading-man looks, wicked sense of humor, Twitter presence and mellow baritone have made him one of country's top stars.
While Shelton didn't give himself much of a shot, Lambert — who also won her third straight female vocalist of the year award — thought he fit the definition of entertainer of the year after doing a little research.
"I realized that it just meant not only touring numbers, not only ticket sales or how much production you have, but the way that you represent country music within a year," Lambert said. "The media that you do and the work that you do and the TV shows that you are on and how you represent yourself and how you speak out about country music. When you think about it that way, Blake Shelton deserved to win that trophy tonight."
Shelton's victory was just one of many surprises during the awards. Quartet Little Big Town joined Lambert with two wins apiece, taking home vocal group and single of the year for "Pontoon." And Thompson Square's Shawna and Keifer Thompson won vocal duo of the year, ending Sugarland's five-year run in that category.
"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 fellow outsiders LBT, Eric Church felt 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 the North Carolina native's 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 awards went off-script early, and not just for Little Big Town. Thompson Square won in a category that's been locked up by 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 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 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.
Most of country's top stars were on hand at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena for the celebration, with many slated to perform. Swift performed her 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.
Shelton, McGraw and 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."