LAS VEGAS - Jamey Johnson took home song of the year honors and Rascal Flatts won their seventh in a row for top vocal group at the Academy of Country Music Awards, but last night's ceremony was highlighted by performances that ranged from extravagant to poignant, perhaps none more so than John Rich's angry anthem "Shuttin' Detroit Down."
"I'd like to dedicate this song tonight to all the hard-working taxpaying Americans from coast to coast who love this country as much as I do," Rich said to the audience while holding a guitar tagged with the sticker "Made in the U.S.A."
"We wrote this song specifically for you," he said before launching into his searing song that feeds into taxpayer resentment about the bailouts on Wall Street.
His performance roused the crowd at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, but his wasn't the only one. Teen sensation Miley Cyrus performed her new song as she danced atop a high staircase on stage, Heidi Newfield sang her song "Johnny and June," inspired by the late Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, around an appropriate ring of fire, and Carrie Underwood unveiled a burgundy dress during her performance so overwhelming that it took up most of the stage.
"Can I borrow that?" host Reba McEntire quipped after Underwood's performance. Underwood later won for top female vocalist: "I feel like I won 'American Idol' all over again," she said excitedly as she picked up her trophy.
Taylor Swift had four nominations going into yesterday's show, but for being the top-selling artist in country and pop music, she got a special, unexpected honor after she performed the ballad "You're Not Sorry" following a magical entrance courtesy of magician David Copperfield.
McEntire stopped her and presented her with a special ACM Crystal Milestone Award for bringing so many young people to country music.
"Are you serious?" a stunned Swift asked McEntire, then hugged her. "To you guys who come to my show. I have absolutely fallen in love with you and will never forget you, ever."
Sugarland broke Brooks & Dunn's lock on the vocal duo award, while "Dancing with the Stars" champ Julianne Hough took the top new artist trophy during last night's Academy of Country Music Awards.
"Thank you for dreaming back every time we dream," Sugarland's Kristian Bush said.
The duo kept Brooks & Dunn from winning the category for the 14th straight year.
A tearful Hough, who added country singer to her "Dancing with the Stars" credentials, thanked "Everybody that has followed me from the beginning and believed in me."
Earlier, newcomer Johnson beat out veterans like George Strait and Brad Paisley in nabbing the night's first honor, song of the year, for his poignant hit about an old man looking back on his life, "In Color."
"Thanks to my band going in off day and producing an off record," Johnson quipped in a brief acceptance speech.
The show began by featuring country's top superstars in a medley of hits anchored by Brooks & Dunn's "Play Something Country." It included Swift's fiery "Picture to Burn," Sugarland's "It Happens," Underwood's "All American Girl," and Rascal Flatts' "Me and My Gang."
Later, Keith Urban performed guitar-driven "Kiss a Girl," with a giant screen behind him flashing a montage of photos.
Lee Ann Womack, wearing a black dress and heels and strumming a black guitar, performed her lonely drinking song "Solitary Thinking."
Strait and Brad Paisley led all nominees with six. Paisley was linked up by video from Nashville, where his wife, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, is expecting their second child, and accepted the trophy for male vocalist of the year from there.
Jamie Foxx introduced Strait's performance of "Troubadour," and joked that the country scene was getting more diverse.
"Things are changing," Foxx said, mentioning his repeat appearance at the ACMs and Darius Rucker's success on the country charts.
"[An] African-American singing country. Things are changing. Got a black man running the country. Things are changing. ... I mean, what's next, white people going to Tyler Perry movies?"
Besides Strait, nominees for entertainer of the year - the night's top trophy - were Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Underwood and Urban.
If Chesney wins, it would be his fifth consecutive time and tie him with Alabama for most wins in a row for the honor.
If Underwood takes it, she'd become only the seventh female act to do so, putting her alongside Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, McEntire, Shania Twain and, most recently, the Dixie Chicks in 2000.
The show aired live from the MGM Grand on CBS.