NASHVILLE, Tenn. - It was couples night at the Country Music Association Awards as Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert capped an emotional evening with Shelton's first entertainer of the year award.
"The Voice" star won a leading three awards, including his third straight male vocalist of the year award. Lambert won female vocalist of the year, and the couple shared song of the year for their heart-rending collaboration "Over You."
Lambert openly wept on stage in one of the more emotional CMA moments in recent memory as her husband recounted for the ABC television audience how his late father Dick spurred the couple to write the heart-rending song the loss of his brother Richie.
"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."
Shelton and Lambert weren't the only couple with surprising wins. Little Big Town, a quartet that includes couple Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook, took 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 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."
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.