NASHVILLE — 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 big winner Thursday night during the awards, winning vocal group and single of the year for their breakthrough hit Pontoon.
Blake Shelton was named entertainer of the year. The Voice star won the award for the first time Thursday night, beating out previous winners Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift and fellow nominee Jason Aldean.
"Y'all, this has been a 13-year journey," Karen Fairchild said as members of Little Big Town fist-pumped, jumped up and down and shouted on stage after an emotional night that capped one of country's best career reboots. "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."
In one of the awards' most emotional moments in recent memory, husband and wife stars 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 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.
Co-hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley 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.