"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 awards went off-script early, and not just for Little Big Town. Thompson Square won in a category that's been locked up by 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.
Hunter Hayes won new artist of the year, while Chesney and Tim McGraw won musical event of the year for "Party Like a Rock Star" and Toby Keith won video of the year for "Red Solo Cup."
Church helped kick off the show by combining forces with Aldean and Luke Bryan. 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. Each returned later to play singles, showing how large a market share they now own in country music.
Most of country's top stars were on hand at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena for the celebration, with many slated to perform. Swift performed her somber new single "Begin Again" on a set with a picture of the Eiffel Tower and falling leaves in the background. She received an ovation of her own.
Shelton, McGraw and wife Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum and Keith Urban joined together to salute lifetime achievement winner Willie Nelson, ending with a group sing-along of his iconic "On the Road Again."
Little Big Town performed their winner "Pontoon," a song that was something of a departure for Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet. Produced by Jay Joyce, the song has a sharper groove than LBT's previous efforts.
In a coincidence, Joyce also produced Church's "Chief." The hard edge he brought to both paid off all around.
Church said album of the year, arguably the CMA's second most prestigious award, was a win that fit right in with his and Joyce's philosophy.
"I still think in this day and time the only way to really get a fan base is you've got to give them more than one chapter of a book," Church said. "They've got to read the whole book."
AP writer Kristin M. Hall in Nashville contributed to this report.
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