Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox thanked country radio for “being our mouthpiece.”
“What we do means nothing if no one gets to hear it,” he said.
Strait had said that of his five nominations, which tied him with Brad Paisley for the most of the night, he wanted to win the album trophy the most.
“When we made this album it was incredible,” Strait said afterward. “We had great material and just kept knocking them out. We ended up with 15 songs and never intended to put 15 songs on the record, but when I started going through the songs there was none I could take off.”
Strait’s hit “Give It Away” won song of the year.
“You all been letting me do this for 50 years, and I love you,” said Bill Anderson, who co-wrote “Give It Away” with Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson.
Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” won single of the year.
Other early winners included Tracy Lawrence, featuring Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, for musical event for “Find Out Who Your Friends Are“; dobro great Jerry Douglas of Union Station as musician of the year; and Paisley’s “Online” for music video.
“This was something that we all wanted to sing,” Lawrence said of the hit. “It was something that was in our wheelhouse. I think we all related to it.”
Paisley performed “Online” with the Brentwood, Tenn., High School marching band. Other performers were Underwood, Rascal Flatts, Miranda Lambert, Strait, Swift, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Big & Rich, Rodney Atkins, Brooks & Dunn, Sugarland, Martina McBride, Keith Urban and the Eagles.
Vince Gill introduced the Eagles, who played their single “How Long” and received a standing ovation.
“For 35 years or more, these next guys have been writing songs like we wished we could write,” Gill said.
Rascal Flatts opened the show with the title track to its latest album, “Still Feels Good,” while a montage of country stars flashed on large screens behind them, including a photo of Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. Wagoner died last week of lung cancer.
Dwight Yoakam also paid tribute to Wagoner, calling him a pioneer and a groundbreaker to the end.
The show was broadcast live on ABC and was hosted by James Denton of “Desperate Houswives,” Kate Walsh of “Private Practice” and Kimberly Williams-Paisley — Brad Paisley’s wife — of “According to Jim.”
“I’m like a kid in a candy store here. Lots of good country snacks. I’m all excited and giddy,” Walsh cracked.