In an upset victory few in the country world saw coming, "King" George Strait reclaimed his throne last night at the 47th annual CMA Awards, taking home the top prize for Entertainer of the Year and beating out fresher-faced nominees Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift. It was Strait's third time taking home the title, but his first since 1990.
"Never in a million years," Strait said at the podium. "This just blows me away."
Strait, 61, has nearly that many country Number One hits. He recently signed a five-album deal, despite being in the midst of a lengthy farewell tour. His 40th studio album, Love Is Everything, came out in May. "I can't imagine ever not being in this business," he told reporters backstage.
Though the singer's triumph evoked country's traditionalist past, few of last night's winners walked to the podium at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena sporting rhinestones, boots or cowboy hats. Rather, the ceremony – hosted for the sixth consecutive year by comedic country duo Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood – showcased the growing breadth of the genre, in addition to boasting appearances from mainstream music figures like Dave Grohl, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Jason Mraz.
Among the range of winners last night were returning champions Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, who walked away with Male Vocalist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year, respectively; harmonically adept pop-country quartet Little Big Town, who took home Vocal Group of the Year; and bro-country breakout hick-hop duo Florida Georgia Line, who landed trophies for Vocal Duo of the Year and Single of the Year for their summertime smash "Cruise."
If that's the country music's zeitgeist, perhaps the genre's future lies with last night's Best New Artist winner Kacey Musgraves, whose performance of "Follow Your Arrow" – a song espousing LGBT rights and smoking weed – challenged the notion that today's country has little more to offer than tailgate anthems about good ole boys riding in trucks.
That said, when it came to last night's performances, many of contemporary country's bad boys opted to show their soft sides. Jason Aldean treated viewers to his heartfelt "Night Train"; Luke Bryan sang a tender rendition of "Drink a Beer," a requiem he dedicated to his late siblings; Tim McGraw turned in a breezy performance of his 35th and latest Number One, "Southern Girls"; while Blake Shelton opted to croon his moody weeper "Mine Would Be You."
Shelton and wife Miranda Lambert cemented their status as country's reigning power couple with their respective wins, as Lambert took home her fourth consecutive award for Female Vocalist of the Year – a feat last accomplished by Reba McEntire in the Eighties. "I really didn't think this one was gonna happen this year," Lambert said at the podium.
If Strait received the show's highest honor, certainly Swift received its biggest fanfare. Despite three nominations last year, she left empty-handed. Not so this time: The CMAs honored Swift with its Pinnacle Award – a lifetime achievement recognition bestowed just once before, on Garth Brooks in 2005. In an elaborate showstopper of a presentation, Swift was lauded in a video package that featured words of praise from the likes of Mick Jagger, Julia Roberts, Ellen DeGeneres, Carly Simon and Justin Timberlake, followed by a trophy presentation from acts for whom Swift had opened early in her career, including McGraw, Strait, Paisley, Keith Urban, Faith Hill and Rascal Flatts.
"They told me this was going to happen but I didn't know there was going to be all this," Swift said during an emotional acceptance speech. "You've made me feel so special right now! Thank you!"
If the presentation came off like the Country Music Association's manufactured ploy to make Swift the belle of the ball, an earlier performance segment seemed designed to showcase her as still a very much respected country singer when she sang a stripped-down, rootsy version of her not-so-country song "Red," backed by Alison Krauss and Vince Gill, and session heavyweights Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer and Eric Darken. "I don't think I've ever met a harder working musician than her," Bush told Rolling Stone before the show.
The night's official legacy honor, the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, went to recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Rogers. Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles celebrated the singer by performing a medley of his hits "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," "The Gambler" and "Islands in the Stream," which featured Rogers singing opposite Nettles.
It was just one collaboration in a show that was heavy on them. Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert sang a duet on Urban's stadium-sized single "We Were Us," and Hunter Hayes and Jason Mraz took cameras on a virtual tour of the arena during their up-beat ditty "Everybody's Got Somebody but Me." By comparison, the stark simplicity of George Strait and Alan Jackson paying tribute to George Jones on "He Stopped Loving Her Today" seemed almost out of place.
Perhaps the most anticipated pairing of the night, came near the end, when Dave Grohl joined country-jam Southern rockers the Zac Brown Band on drums for the debut of "Day for the Dead," a full-throttle poppy rock opus.