First-Time Winners Reign at the CMA Awards

It’s hard to tell who was more excited—the fans or the artists—as the red carpet was rolled out for the 46th Annual Country Music Association Awards.

Jason Aldean kicked things off by performing the Night Train collaboration “The Only Way I Know" with Luke Bryan and Eric Church, who also perform the song with him on the album. Not to be outdone, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood busted out some “Gangnam Style” moves—referencing the "It" dance song of the moment by Korean rapper PSY—during their inspired monologue, which also included a parody of Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger" titled "Moves Like Haggard."

Overwhelmingly, it was a night of firsts for several artists at this year’s CMA Awards.

The members of Little Big Town were positively giddy when their name was called for their first-ever CMA award: “Pontoon” was named Single of the Year. However, it was when they won their second trophy—for Vocal Group—that the foursome turned absolutely delirious, thanking everyone and everything. And Jesus, too. “Thank you, Capitol Records and Jesus. Thank you, Nashville and Jesus. Thank you, our families and Jesus!” they exclaimed. Backstage, LBT member Karen Fairchild told Country Weekly, “We just always kept showing up and believing and dreaming and it happened for us. You just never know what’s around the corner. . . . We’re like every songwriter and struggling artist and person out there trying to make it—we’re their story.”

Thompson Square also grabbed their first CMA award, for Vocal Duo, and garnered thunderous applause when the married couple shared a passionate kiss onstage. “Shawna and I met almost 17 years ago at a little place in Nashville and a singing competition," Keifer Thompson said backstage. "And from that first night we haven’t been apart. We’re best friends, we spend every waking moment together. I know it sounds crazy to most people, but it works for us.”

Eric Church claimed his first CMA win in the highly regarded Album of the Year category for his third album, Chief. “I never put a lot of weight on awards, but I always wanted it for the people that believed in me from the very beginning," he said afterward.

Of course, Hunter Hayes' win in the New Artist category was a first-time win for the young star, who was nevertheless quite poised when he accepted his trophy and thanked his record label and management team. Backstage he admitted that he really wasn’t all that calm. “Part of me said I should be prepared," Hunter shared, "and part of me said, ‘No, you’re not going to win.’”

One of the most emotional moments of the evening came when Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton accepted the CMA award for Song of the Year for “Over You," from Miranda's album Four the Record. A tearful Miranda ceded the speech to her husband, who explained that they co-wrote the song for his brother who died several years ago in a car accident. Blake recalled that it was his father, Dick—who passed away earlier this year—who had encouraged him to write it. “Even after he’s gone, he’s still right,” an overcome Blake said about his dad from the stage.

Blake would go on to win two more awards. He scored his third consecutive Male Vocalist of the Year honor and then pulled off the upset of the night by being named Entertainer of the Year. In the press room following his surprise win, Blake suggested that Taylor Swift would take home the prize. He also promised to continue to advance country music. "We have to keep pushing, we have to keep pushing the boundaries. I don't just mouth off and do dumb things. Everything I do, the first thing on my mind is, 'How does this reflect on Nashville?'" said Blake, who has become a bona fide TV star as a mentor on NBC's The Voice. "And Nashville should never be pigeonholed or painted in a corner. There's a lot of talented people here who do a lot of different things. I just happened to be the first and I got to do it on TV."

Performance highlights included Little Big Town’s “Pontoon,” Eric Church's "Springsteen," which featured a verse from Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run," and an all-star tribute to Willie Nelson by Blake, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. On a  serious note, Brad Paisley prefaced his new single, “Southern Comfort Zone,” with the chorus of rapper Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind," reworked as a tribute to the New York and New Jersey victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Look for more on the CMA Awards in the Nov. 26 issue of Country Weekly.

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