NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It's Jason Aldean's party at the Country Music Association Awards, but a melancholy song about dying young by rising stars The Band Perry is the early surprise.
Country music's biggest night Wednesday started with unexpected appearances by Hank Williams Jr., Barbie dolls of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill and plenty of crossover appeal. But it was Kimberly Perry's poignant song "If I Die Young" that was everyone's focus.
"It's just always felt like a song that was meant to be here," Perry said as she was flanked by brothers and bandmates Reid and Neil Perry. "I was so excited to have a pen and paper in hand when it was ready to come to Earth."
The band is also up for new artist of the year honors which will be handed out later in the evening.
Aldean won his first major CMA award, taking album of the year for "My Kinda Party," his platinum-selling album. The CD also included "Don't You Wanna Stay," his duet with Kelly Clarkson, which won musical event of the year.
Blake Shelton and Kenny Loggins opened the show with a high-energy version of Loggins' hit "Footloose," quickly establishing a theme for what is a very eclectic night.
Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter continued that trend when they won video of the year for their steamy "You and Tequila."
Lionel Richie had every star buzzing on the red carpet before performing duets from his new country album with Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker and Little Big Town. He posed for a picture with Miranda Lambert and gave advice to Lady Antebellum on the red carpet. Chesney told him he used Richie's songs on a mixtape he gave a girl in high school.
Gregg Allman joined fellow Peach State natives Zac Brown Band on "Georgia on my Mind," Natasha Bedingfield, in a dress that featured a fluffy red skirt, joined Rascal Flatts on stage to perform their duet "Easy," and that was just the start of genre shuffling.
"Gregg Allman, I was the one who reached out and touched you on the red carpet," Jennifer Nettles said from the stage after Sugarland won vocal duo of the year for the fifth straight time. "He didn't know who I was, but I really like you."
Williams appeared during the opening skit Wednesday night with hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who lampooned his recent troubles with ESPN and his "Monday Night Football" theme song. Paisley brought out an acoustic guitar and began his own version of "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight."
"Are you ready for an awards show?" Paisley sang before Underwood warned him he might draw Williams' ire.
As they spoke, Williams quietly walked up behind the hosts to the roar from the crowd. Asked if he wanted to say something, Williams said, "No," to the delight of the audience.
It was just one of several laugh-out-loud moments for the hosts, who trotted out Barbies of McGraw and Hill after Williams left the stage.
"I can't wait until after the show," Paisley said to Underwood. "Can we play with them now?"
The two made the dolls kiss and before checking to see if the McGraw doll was anatomically correct. "There's nothing there," Paisley said in amazement.
The camera cut to McGraw and Hill, who raised her arms and mouthed the words, "I know," receiving the night's biggest laugh.