"The Voice" star won the award for the first time Thursday night, beating out previous winners Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift and fellow nominee Jason Aldean.
It was the third win of an emotional night and caps one of country's best career reboots.
The 36-year-old Oklahoma native had reached a stagnant point in his career, but started to climb again about three years ago with a series of hit singles, his marriage to fellow country star Miranda Lambert and his appearance in the spinning chair on "The Voice."
After years of feeling like an outsider, Eric Church found a home Thursday night at the Country Music Association Awards.
Church won prestigious honor 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."
It wasn't the surprise-filled night's only surreal moment. In one of the awards' most emotional moments in recent memory, husband and wife stars Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert won song of the year.
As Lambert openly wept on stage, Shelton recounted for the television audience how the loss of his older brother, Richie, and father, Dick, spurred the couple to write the song.
"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."
The win came as something of a surprise, but fit right in to a CMA Awards that went off-script early as Little Big Town and Thompson Square earned surprise wins.
Beloved veteran quartet Little Big Town won single of the year for "Pontoon," knocking off some of the most popular acts of the last year in doing so. And Thompson Square ended Sugarland's five-year run in the vocal duo category, an award that's gone to either Sugarland or Brooks & Dunn 19 of the last 20 years.
"Ever since I was 5 years old, I used to practice in the kitchen with one of my Meemaw's Mason jars for this moment here," Shawna Thompson said.
Country music's fastest rising stars Jason Aldean, Eric Church and Luke Bryan kicked off the CMA's by joining forces. Playing with a large American flag behind them, the trio of performers teamed up on Aldean's new single "The Only Way I Know" from his new album "Night Train" and earned a standing ovation.
Most of country's top stars were on hand at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena for the celebration, with many slated to perform. Taylor Swift arrived in a detailed red and nude lace dress to some of the night's loudest cheers and mingled with fans who made signs to draw her attention. Art imitated life as stars from the new drama "Nashville" like Hayden Panetierre mingled with the folks they mimic, drawing just as many screams. And many stars reflected on the tragedy brought by Superstorm Sandy.
Co-hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley kicked off the show with a country version of Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger," ''We got moves like Haggard." They did their own version of Psy's "Gangnam Style" and riffed on Swift's hit single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," noting she is rumored to have recently broken up with boyfriend Conor Kennedy.
When Underwood informed him of the news they were unlikely to get back together, he asked: "Never?" Underwood responded, "Ever," and the two played verbal hot potato for a few seconds before Paisley ended the joke by saying, "Maybe Taylor will write a song about it."
They also poked a little fun at the night's honored guest, Willie Nelson, who was due to receive a lifetime achievement award and perform with Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum and Blake Shelton.
"Tonight we are honoring the great Willie Nelson," Paisley said, "and also simultaneously we are going to strip you of all your CMA Awards. Sorry."
"Because Willie," Underwood said, "it appears there's been some doping charges."
"Guilty!" said Nelson, a noted marijuana advocate.
The 79-year-old Nelson walked the carpet before the show with his wife, Annie. One of the most beloved figures in not just country music, but American popular culture, Nelson was stopped several times for hugs. He deflected most questions about the lifetime achievement award he would be receiving with jokes.
"It's a great honor and I'm glad I achieved something," he said.
McGraw debuted the single "One of Those Nights" from his new album "Two Lanes of Freedom. Lambert, dressed in a multi-colored bustier and leather pants, spun around on stage while playing her rockin' song "Fastest Girl in Town." The Band Perry delivered an energetic version of "Better Dig Two," complete with laser light show.
"Pontoon" was something of a departure for Little Big Town, whose members include Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet. Produced by Jay Joyce, who's career started in the rock world, the song has a sharper groove than LBT's previous efforts.
That song's hard edge reflects country's changing face and fan base.
From Swift's army of empowered young women to the power-drinking party boys who prefer Church and Jason, country's audience is much different than it was 10 years ago and that's reflected in the awards. Church benefited with a leading five nominations, including first-time appearances in the album and male vocalist of the year categories.
Fans held handmade signs aimed at getting Swift's attention. Rising star Brantley Gilbert rode up on a Harley Davidson motorcycle before greeting fans. Kellie Pickler showed up in a silver dress and ultra-short hairdo after donating her golden locks to cancer victims. Hunter Hayes and Luke Bryan received some of the loudest screams from teenage fans. And art imitated life as Hayden Panettiere and stars from the new show "Nashville" walked the carpet, drawing cheers just like the real-life performers they mimic on the hour-long drama.
Earlier in the day, Toby Keith won video of the year for "Red Solo Cup" and McGraw and Kenny Chesney shared a win in musical event of the year for "Party Like a Rock Star."
"Kenny asked me to do this with him and we have been friends for over 20 years now," McGraw said. "... Sitting back in our apartments in the old days, we would have never dreamed of something like this."