George Strait won single and album of the year at Wednesday's CMA Awards, a ceremony highlighted by a lavish performance by Taylor Swift, a surprise appearance by rapper Lil Wayne and Reba McEntire's onstage collaboration with Brooks & Dunn on the song she inspired, "Cowgirls Don't Cry."
Strait, wearing a black suit and cowboy hat, thanked the songwriters for "letting me sing such a beautiful song" after the poignant "I Saw God Today" won single of the year. He later won album of the year for "Troubadour."
Also winning two awards was Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. Sugarland won the award for duo of the year, and earlier, Nettles won song of the year for Sugarland's hit "Stay."
"I love writing songs. I love performing them and love the fans who come out to our shows to see what we write," said Nettles as she accepted her trophy. "It's just been a gift from the beginning and been a gift to write and I hope it's been a gift and touched your heart."
Rascal Flatts won their sixth straight vocal group of the year award, beating out the Eagles, Emerson Drive, Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town for the honor.
"Thank you to all our fans who came out to see us all year long," said Jay DeMarcus, who wore a jacket with a bright floral print. "I'm glad this happened early in the show because I've got to get mamaw's curtains back soon."
Lady Antebellum, a trio that is one of country music's most promising acts, won best new artist. As they picked up their award, their awe-struck guitarist, Dave Haywood, said: "It's not supposed to happen like this."
While the awards may have been the main point of the evening, it was the performances that dominated the show. Kid Rock performed his hit "All Summer Long," and, perhaps in a nod to his hip-hop roots, brought out top-seller Lil Wayne on stage, though the rapper didn't utter a word — he just mimicked playing a guitar onstage. He may have been the first true rap act to perform at the CMAs.
Swift brought her hit "Love Story," which features characters named Romeo and Juliet, to life with an elaborate set which featured her wearing a medieval-looking purple gown with a castle backdrop: She later shed the gown to reveal a sweeping white dress.
Brooks & Dunn have said that "Cowgirls Don't Cry" was inspired by country great McEntire, and she joined them as they song the ode to a tough woman.
Miranda Lambert sang "More Like Her," a gentle track in striking contrast to her fiery hits like "Gunpowder and Lead." Lambert performed the song solo while sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar.
Brad Paisley and Keith Urban opened the show with dueling guitars as they performed their duet, "Start a Band." The song is the first single from Paisley's new mostly instrumental album, "Play." The two incorporated elements of classic rock anthems such as "Layla" and "Smoke on the Water" as they played.
Paisley did double duty, also hosting the show with fellow nominee Carrie Underwood. Paisley targeted several of the night's nominees for jokes, including 18-year-old Swift: "Talk about dedication. Did you know she had to sneak out of the house to be here because she has a huge math test and a meeting with her accountants tomorrow?"
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, who are costarring in the upcoming movie, "Australia," presented the night's first award. Reese Witherspoon was also in attendance.
In awards given out before the live telecast of the show on ABC, Paisley won video of the year for "Waitin' on a Woman," featuring TV legend Andy Griffith, and Alison Krauss and Robert Plant won musical event of the year for their duet "Gone, Gone, Gone."
Other performers included Kellie Pickler, wearing a skintight black mini-dress, and Alan Jackson, who sang his hit "Good Time" with a parade of dancers lining the aisles of the audience.
Kenny Chesney was the lead nominee with seven and is seeking his third straight — and fourth overall — entertainer of the year award. If he wins, Chesney would tie Garth Brooks for most wins in that category.
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