Florida Georgia Line and Miranda Lambert doubled up on trophies, and Carrie Underwood claimed the biggest Buckle in the Bible Belt during Wednesday's CMT Music Awards, a prologue to the four-day CMA Music Festival.
Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise" earned duo video of the year and breakthrough video, while Lambert took female video for "Mama's Broken Heart" and also snagged CMT performance of the year for a live version of "Over You" from the 2012 "CMT Artists of the Year" special.
FGL's Brian Kelley gave a shout out to "our amazing fans," one of several artists who made a point to single out the buyers who finance their careers.
"We can't thank you enough," Kelley added, "for changing our lives."
Lambert likewise paid homage to the fans -- "you guys are awesome" -- while claiming the performance award. She also made a third acceptance speech, claiming the male Buckle for husband Blake Shelton, who won with "Sure Be Cool If You Did."
"Honey, I'm drinking for two tonight," she proclaimed.
Underwood's video of the year came for "Blown Away," a song built around tornado imagery. It came ironically after she delivered one of the night's most difficult performances. She sang her rangy current single, "See You Again," accompanied by a gospel choir in front of black-and-white footage of broken homes from her home state of Oklahoma. Underwood recently donated $1 million to tornado relief. While she forced a smile, she seemed emotionally challenged during the performance.
"The good Lord has been very good to me, all of us in this room for a long time," she said in her acceptance speech. She offered thanks "for our love of music and making music videos."
The fan-voted CMT Buckle comes symbolically during the CMA Festival, which features a ream of live performances and autograph signings for 70,000 visitors across downtown Nashville June 6-9.
The attention to the consumers is what sets the CMTs apart from other industry-voted awards shows, according to Hunter Hayes.
"This one is energized and, in a lot of ways, determined by the fans," Hayes observed on the purple carpet before the show. "The energy that we get on stage comes from the fans, and to have that kind of energy in this room is exactly what this all kind of built around. That's what gives this show the difference."
Lady Antebellum collected the group video for "Downtown," and Jason Aldean shared collaborative video with Eric Church and Luke Bryan for "The Only Way I Know."
Fan tallies were kept throughout the show. Cassadee Pope played official Twitter tracker, updating the audience on the total number of CMT-related tweets sent during the show. The public voted on video of the year, and it decided on what song Jason Aldean and co-host Kristen Bell would perform in the awards' final hour. That number turned out to be Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson's 35-year-old outlaw classic, "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys."
As rough as that chorus was, it adhered in spirit to one of the network's signature titles, the collaborative "CMT Crossroads" series, and the awards were accompanied by plenty of moments that drew on multiple artists. Aldean fist bumped rocker Lenny Kravitz in the night's opening number as they launched into "American Woman," setting up a pairing that seems suited for a future "Crossroads" episode.
Aldean was also part of the biggest multi-personality ensemble, though it wasn't a musical moment. He dropped onto a couch where Bell – playing a psychiatrist – conducted a group-therapy session with country show hosts: Aldean, the newbie; Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan and Reba McEntire, all of whom have hosted the ACMs; and Carrie Underwood, who routinely co-hosts the CMAs with Brad Paisley. Throw in Vince Vaughn and a couple of TV therapists – "Celebrity Rehab" doc Drew Pinsky and Kelsey Grammer, alias Frasier Crane – and the room had plenty of opportunity for on-camera advice.
"Watch out for your co-hosts that can be super-frickin' needy," Shelton warned Aldean.
Aldean assured he could handle any potential drama.
"My mind's like a steel trap," he deadpanned. "Nothin' gets in here."
There were other artistic mash-ups, too. Darius Rucker served up "Wagon Wheel" with Lady Antebellum on backing vocals. Little Big Town turned in a fierce version of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" with Keith Urban chipping in bonus guitar. Kenny Rogers and Sheryl Crow whipped out a ragged chorus of "Islands In The Stream" while presenting video of the year. And Florida Georgia Line closed the show doing "Cruise" with Nelly, whose appearance in a remix version helped one of country's biggest hits of 2012 become one of pop's biggest summer songs of 2013.
Until Underwood's tornado-themed performance, the night was noticeably light – even a tribute to the late George Jones nimbly avoided any somber tones. Aldean remembered playing a show with Jones, and noted that his own "Dirt Road Anthem" pays major respect to Jones in its chorus.
"No one ever did anything quite like the greatest country singer of all-time," Aldean offered. "God bless the Possum, Mr. George Jones."
The Mavericks then delivered a rollicking read of Jones' "The Race Is On" as the network moved into a commercial break.
The Mavericks, a critically-heralded act from the 1990s that reunited and released an album in January, served as house band for the evening, supporting Randy Houser's "How Country Feels," Cassadee Pope's "Wasting All These Tears," Love And Theft's "Angel Eyes," Ashley Monroe's "Weed Instead Of Roses," Kree Harrison's "All Cried Out" and Dustin Lynch's "Cowboys And Angels."