But the most poignant moment of the evening came when Ronnie Dunn accepted an award for someone else — Keith Urban. Urban is undergoing drug rehabilitation and could not attend the event, but he sent a letter which Dunn read to an emotional audience.
"I'm pained not being here with you all tonight," Urban wrote, before listing several people he wanted to thank for his male vocalist of the year award.
He closed with, "To my wife Nicole [Kidman], 'I love you' and to my friends and family and to all the 'monkeyville' [fan club] family for your love and faith. I thank you from the bottom of my heart and am looking forward to coming home and seeing all of you. God bless you, Keith."
Urban's battle with drugs was just part of the behind-the-scenes drama of the evening.
Singer Sara Evans performed, only weeks after her high profile divorce battle forced her to leave the reality show "Dancing With The Stars." Dressed in jeans and a pretty top, Evans sang "Real Fine Place To Start" to warm applause.
The CMAs, which aired on ABC, returned to Nashville Monday night after one year in New York.
Brooks & Dunn and Paisley entered the show topping the list of nominees with six nods each. Paisley earned album of the year and event of the year honors.
Other multiple nominees included Kenny Chesney and "American Idol" winner Carrie Underwood with four each, and Rascal Flatts and Dolly Parton with three apiece.
Underwood won the Horizon Award for new artist and female vocalist of the year. She remembered to thank the reality show that launched her career.
Faith Hill caused some controversy when Underwood beat her out for female vocalist of the year. Hill was standing backstage when the announcement was made and then turned to the camera with an angry face, mouthing the word "what!?" She laterand meant no disrespect.
Chesney won entertainer of the year, presented to him by country legend Barbara Mandrell. "The relationship that I have with all the people back there in the back," he said, pointing to the fans in the auditorium, "is unbelievable, thank you. You've given me, my band and my crew a lot of great summers."
Contemporary superstar George Strait was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during the show. Strait, 54, broke onto the charts in 1981 with "Unwound" and is still having hits, including his latest, "It Just Comes Natural."
Kris Kristofferson introduced Strait, who sang his latest hit song "Give It Away."
"Who'd have thought it?" said Strait. "Thank you very much to the CMA, my fans - I can't tell you, don't think I don't realize why I'm here." Cribbing from a piece of paper, Strait also thanked his crew, band, management, record label, father, and "last but not least, my lovely wife, Norma, and my son, Bubba."
Other musical highlights included vocal group of the year winners Rascal Flatts, who sang "My Wish" and Martina McBride who give a stirring performance of "Anyway," backed by a string orchestra.
Faith Hill, The Wreckers, Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert, Josh Turner, Amy Grant and Vince Gill also performed.
The nominees and winners are determined by the 6,000 members of the CMA.
By Judy Faber