There was little surprise when Taylor Swift won entertainer of the year at The Academy of Country Awards on Sunday night — except maybe in how little surprise the 22-year-old sensation showed when her name was called.
Swift displayed none of her normal expressions of astonishment after winning the academy's top honor for the second year in a row. And, in fact, neither did her competitors, who gracefully if grimly acknowledged her as she hugged her way to the stage. With millions of albums sold and millions of new fans turned on to country music — and turning out to vote for her — the award had the feel of a coronation.
"She deserved it," fellow nominee and show co-host Blake Shelton said. "When those announcements came out who was nominated, I remember saying right then — I don't think I said I hope Taylor wins because I hoped I would win — but Taylor deserves it. I don't think there is anyone with half a brain that would say otherwise. She has done a lot for us in country music. We are lucky enough in country music to call her one of us. But I am always going to make fun of her in my monologues so she might as well get used to that."
Miranda Lambert and the duo of Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson were the top winners with two trophies each and their early victories overshadowed Swift initially. Lambert took her third consecutive female vocalist award, and was matched by husband Shelton, who ended Brad Paisley's five-year run in the male vocalist category. She also won album of the year for a record-tying third time for "Four the Record." Aldean and Clarkson won single record and vocal event of the year for their steamy duet "Don't You Wanna Stay."
Swift was a mostly silent presence for much of the show. Shelton and co-host Reba McEntire poked a little fun at her, wondering about that rumored date with New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow. She eventually lost in the female vocalist and video categories and didn't perform.
When it came time for Lionel Richie to announce the entertainer winner, though, a feeling of inevitability had taken over. By then, the night's top nominee and Swift's main rival in the category, nine-time nominee Kenny Chesney, had been shut out of the awards. The other entertainer nominees were Aldean and Brad Paisley.
With the win she becomes the second woman to win two ACM entertainer of the year awards, following Carrie Underwood's wins the two previous years. Receiving the fan-voted trophy capped an incredible 24 hours that was nonetheless tinged with melancholy.
She spent Saturday in Los Angeles where first lady Michelle Obama presented her with The Big Help Award at The Kids' Choice Awards for her charitable work, something she said made her nervous because she considers Obama a role model.
"She was so cool," Swift said.
After that great experience, however, the ACMs were tempered by the fact her date couldn't make it. Somerdale, N.J., high school student Kevin McGuire, who has leukemia, was hospitalized on Friday with a virus.
"But I called him yesterday and told him that the next award show that he is well for we are going," Swift, wearing an elegant white floor-length dress with gold accents, said backstage.
While it comes as little surprise that Swift won, the ACMs did offer a few interesting developments this year.
Eli Young Band knocked off Chesney's take on "You and Tequila" with Grace Potter and other top stars in the song of the year category. It was a long time coming for the Texas quartet, whose lead singer Mike Eli exhorted watchers to follow the band by following their dreams. Eli told reporters their career has morphed in incredible ways. A few years ago they were excited to score an interview in a college newspaper. Sunday night, they were dedicating the win to their wives for their patience.
"They were crying more than we were," Eli said. "And we were crying a lot."
Husband-and-wife duo Thompson Square also pulled off an upset, winning vocal duo of the year over Sugarland. Everything else might have been predicted: Lady Antebellum won its third straight vocal group trophy, Toby Keith's riotous "Red Solo Cup" won video of the year and "American Idol" champion Scotty McCreery took new artist of the year.
Underwood kicked off the night with a hard-charging blast of rock 'n' roll and a sexy black and magenta mini-dress for hew new single "Good Girl," a warning shot to those looking for a lot of twang out of the show.
From Underwood's rockin' new single to U2 singer Bono's introduction of Dierks Bentley via video from Ireland to KISS in full makeup awarding Lady Antebellum with yet another trophy, the ACMs showed off the modern flavor of country with all sorts of multi-genre mashups.
LL Cool J and Keith Urban banded together to salute veterans and Toby Keith walked through the crowd as he sang "Red Solo Cup" with the help of Carrot Top. Actor-comedian-banjo player Steve Martin joined Rascal Flatts on "Banjo" after a brief tribute to country pioneer Earl Scruggs, who died last week.
Martina McBride and Train's Pat Monahan teamed up to help New Jersey couple Christina Davidson and Frank Tucci get married on stage while they sang McBride's "Marry Me." Davidson and Tucci's ceremony — quick even for notoriously quickie Vegas weddings — went on behind the singers during the performance and fans could hear the bride and groom say "I will" before their first kiss as a married couple, bringing the crowd to its feet.
And in one of the night's oddest juxtapositions, "Two and a Half Men" star Ashton Kutcher in cowboy hat sang George Strait before awarding Lambert female vocalist of the year.
For Swift, though, the night will be remembered as the bow on top of the "Speak Now" portion of her career. That multi-platinum album was the second-best selling LP of 2011. She filled stadiums and arenas around the world, and Billboard recently named her its top moneymaker last year with an estimated $35 million earned. She also won two Grammys earlier this year.
"It was an amazing thing and for me I am always looking forward, I am always looking at what's next," Swift said. "And I'm writing my next record right now as I have been for the past two years, but intensely writing my next record right now. I hope it's good. Keep your fingers crossed. I would love it if it was good."
Associated Press writer Cristina Silva in Las Vegas contributed to this report.