After winning the evening's top award, Chesney said: "As much as tonight is about awards, I really believe that being able to stand up here is more about great songs, more about the fans, more about being on stage every night in front of a lot of people that really make it happen for me and the band out there."
"This is my fourth time standing up here, and I'm really humbled and I really appreciate it," added Chesney.
The award - his third straight win in the category - helped Chesney avoid a shutout. He was the night's lead nominee with seven but did not pick up a trophy in the other categories.
George Strait won single and album of the year. Strait 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."
"Everybody says they've got the greatest fans. Well, I've really got the greatest fans," Strait said in accepting the album award.
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."
"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," she said in accepting the award.
Carrie Underwood, who co-hosted the show with Brad Paisley, won her third consecutive female vocalist award.
"I just want to say Mom, it's real hard to sing when you're in the second row crying," a teary-eyed Underwood told her mother during her speech. It came after her performance of her No. 1 hit "Just a Dream," about a woman who lost her loved one in war. The song was introduced by Leslie Ponder who lost her husband in Afghanistan.
The former "American Idol" champ also thanked country fans. "I got here in an unconventional way, and you guys didn't have to accept me at all.
Paisley, who won video of the year earlier, hugged Keith Urban and kissed the stomach of his pregnant wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, as he went up to collect his award.
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 Reba McEntire, and she joined them on the song, an ode to a tough woman.
Chensey performed his reggae-flavored hit "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" with the reggae band the Wailers backing him up. They also performed the Bob Marley classic "Three Little Birds." The Eagles, whose return to the top of the charts has a lot to do with their recent country leanings, performed "Busy Being Fabulous."
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 also performed a musical tribute to singer and guitarist Jerry Reed, who died this year.
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