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LAS VEGAS — Blake Shelton and a group of high-profile friends opened the Academy of Country Music Awards with ... a rap?
That's right. Shelton was joined on his new hip-hop-flavored single touting redneck swag “Boys ‘Round Here” by friends Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow, and the trio Pistol Annies to kick off Sunday night's show in Las Vegas.
Co-hosts Shelton and Bryan — who have given themselves the celebrity couple name “Bluke” — immediately took it off-color as they insulted each other during their monologue.
“How about a shout out to the Sherwin-Williams company for spray-painting Luke's jeans on,” Shelton joked as the camera zoomed in on Bryan's, ahem, mid-section.
Bryan took his turn: “Blake's jeans are like buying something on credit — nothing up front. I mean, what size are those, extra empty?”
The focus of this year's ACM Awards is on the men of country, and it's not just Shelton and Bryan taking the spotlight.
Top nominee Eric Church started the night with an award before he even hit the red carpet, winning vocal event of the year for his collaboration with Bryan and Jason Aldean on “The Only Way I Know.”
“It's still kinda strange to me,” Church said on the red carpet. “It's been a long journey, a long path. I can't control what I'm nominated for. I really have nothing to do with win or lose. We could win all seven, lose all seven. I promise you it won't affect anything. We're going to make the same kind of music, the same kind of show. Whatever happens happens.”
Fans began lining up early to catch a glimpse of Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks and a host of country stars. One young fan clutched a bouquet of roses and waved a sign bearing a picture of Swift under the words, “Love is True.”
Little Big Town was surprised on the red carpet with the video of the year award for “Pontoon.”
The night will be a showcase for country's men of the moment — and for its two dominant male stars of the last two decades.
Many of the top names in country music will perform or appear, including top nominees Church and Hunter Hayes, but most eyes will be on the marquee meeting of Brooks and George Strait. Brooks and Strait, two of music's top-selling artists regardless of genre, have never performed together.
They will help honor the show's longtime producer Dick Clark, who passed away last year. The academy is naming its artist of the decade award for Clark, whose tenure with the show began in 1979.
The moment will be special — and not just for the millions watching at home. It has country's biggest stars abuzz as well.
“Having George and Garth on stage together at one time on an awards show will become one of the most important pieces of tape in country music history,” Dierks Bentley said.
Shelton, Bryan and Aldean are up for the fan-voted entertainer of the year award — though they're facing off against academy favorite Miranda Lambert, who is Shelton's wife, and two-time winner Swift, a heavy favorite to three-peat given her relationship with fans.
Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum said the best of country would be on display during the show, and urged country newbies to tune in.
“It'll give you a broad spectrum of what country music is all about. There are so many styles that kind of fall under the same umbrella, so it's a good representation of the genre,” he said.
Shelton is arguably country's most visible male today. “The Voice” coach has a weekly presence on national television, was the recent winner of the rival Country Music Association's entertainer of the year award and has risen to platinum status again after a mid-career lull that's a distant memory.
Aldean is country's best-selling male artist at the moment and Church and Bryan have recently joined him as acts who can fill arenas and reach multiplatinum sales.
They're so prevalent at this year's awards, they've elbowed out traditional nominees like Brad Paisley, who was shut out of the nominations for the first time since 1999, and Kenny Chesney, a perennial entertainer of the year nominee who was left out of the category despite putting on 2012's most talked about event — his stadium tour with Tim McGraw.
Hayes will be joined by another performer who got his start as a precocious teen — Stevie Wonder, making his first appearance on the show.
Aldean, McGraw, Bentley, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson also are scheduled to perform.
Church was nominated for the second consecutive year for album of the year for his breakthrough “Chief.” He's up against Swift's “Red,” Underwood's “Blown Away,” Bryan's “Tailgates & Tanlines” and Little Big Town's “Tornado.” Producer Jay Joyce has two nominations in the category with Church and Little Big Town.
Shelton and Lambert will defend their male and female vocalist of the year wins. Shelton faces Church, Bryan, Aldean and Toby Keith, while Lambert competes with Underwood, Swift, Martina McBride and newcomer Kacey Musgraves.