Church called "Chief," which was nominated two years in a row, a defining album.
"I think my career is going to be pre-'Chief' and post-'Chief,'" Church said. "Album of the year is most special to me."
Aldean, country's top-selling male act, also won male vocalist of the year. Little Big Town had wins for vocal group and video of the year. Florida Georgia Line won for new artist and were previous winners in the new vocal duo/group category. And husband and wife Shawna and Keifer Thompson continued their feel-good story as Thompson Square won its second straight vocal duo of the year award.
The night was full of colorful performances, but the anticipation of Garth Brooks and George Strait performing together overshadowed almost everything else. The two paid tribute to the late Dick Clark, the executive producer of the show since 1979 who passed away a year ago.
Brooks appeared on stage in flannel shirt and black cowboy hat with a Fu Manchu to perform his hit "The Dance" before Strait joined him for "The Cowboy Rides Away."
Reba McEntire introduced the two and paid tribute to Clark, momentarily breaking down as tears appeared in her eyes.
"He would slap me if he saw me crying up here," she said.
Shelton kicked the show off with his new single "Boys 'Round Here," a hip-hop-flavored ode to redneck swag. He was joined by Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow and Pistol Annies, a trio that includes his wife Miranda Lambert.
Lady Antebellum debuted new song "Downtown" and Charles Kelley finished off the song by rubbing pregnant trio-mate Hillary Scott's belly. Carrie Underwood stepped out of a black Cadillac parked on stage as she started her song, "Two Black Cadillacs."
Lambert appeared later with a fiery, diamond-studded rendition of her recent hit "Mama's Broken Heart."
John Mayer joined Paisley for a guitar summit on "Beat This Summer" and Taylor Swift and Keith Urban joined Tim McGraw on stage for "Highway Don't Care," which Urban finished off with a scorching guitar solo.
And Stevie Wonder made his first appearance on a country music awards show, joining Hunter Hayes for a performance by two guys who got their start as precocious teens. Hayes kicked off their set with his song "I Want Crazy," then was joined by Wonder for his hit "Sir Duke." Wonder returned to finish off the show with "Signed, Sealed, Delivered."
Asked to explain why he decided to join Hayes on stage, he had a simple answer.
"What I can tell you is I have always been a lover of music and country music," Wonder said. "The amazing thing (is) I recently saw a few days ago a Motown show. And what was amazing to me, comparing this night to that, it was about lifting people up, lifting love up. And so tonight, again, here in this event, it's about lifting people up, music up, love up. Listen, we could not be here without love."