The Academy of Country Music Awards kicked off Sunday night paying tribute to veteran Merle Haggard, while George Strait sang "All My Ex's Live in Texas" - appropriate for the awards show celebrating its 50th anniversary in a new location, the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Hosts Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan introduced Strait as the "king of country music." He's one of seven recipients of the 50th Anniversary Milestone Awards, along with Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn and Kenny Chesney.
Keith Urban and Eric Church both played guitar while Church sang "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag" in tribute to Haggard. Then - across at the second stage at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium - the country stars performed "Raise 'Em Up" as the audience danced along, including McEntire.
"How about it Texasssssss! Dallas!" Bryan said standing next to Shelton. "They say everything is bigger Texas and that's why we came here"
Shelton announced that the 2015 ACM Awards - usually held in Las Vegas - set a Guinness World Record for most attended live awards show of all-time.
Shelton may be the show's host, a performer and two-time nominee, but he has another priority Sunday: being a cheerleader.
Shelton's wife, fiery country star Lambert, is the top contender with eight nominations, including the coveted entertainer of the year - an award she has yet to win.
"It needs to happen. It's imperative that it happens. Girls having the tough time that they're having right now at radio, it's not good for any of us. Especially somebody like Miranda - I think she deserves entertainer of the year," he said in an interview Friday.
"Not only will that be important for the industry, it's just freakin' right. It's just the right call," he added.
Lambert's nominations include album of the year for "Platinum" and song and single record of the year for her hit, "Automatic." She won the Grammy for best country album in February and she cleaned house at the Country Music Association Awards in November, winning four awards.
"I'm just thankful because I couldn't have dreamed this in a million years," Lambert said in an interview. "You dream of singing music that moves people and you hope that they love it, and then you get to a place like this."
Lambert said she would love to take home entertainer of the year - though she already feels victorious.
"Obviously entertainer of the year is a huge deal, but I feel like I won by being in the category already," she said.
Lambert is the sole female nominated for the top prize Sunday - a trend repeated in other categories. Co-host Luke Bryan, Garth Brooks, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line are also up for the fan-voted entertainer of the year.
Lambert, still, is expected to go home with a few wins: She will likely take home her sixth consecutive win for female vocalist of the year, and she'll receive 50th Anniversary Milestone Award.
Swift, another Milestone recipient, won't be the only pop star in the building: Christina Aguilera will perform with Rascal Flatts, Nick Jonas will join Dan + Shay onstage and Kelly Clarkson will present an award.
The awards show, held in Las Vegas for over a decade, has transformed the Dallas Cowboys' six-year-old stadium to mark its anniversary. The show will feature 23 performances across two stages, and presenters include Troy Aikman, Tony Romo, Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara and Steven Tyler, who is recording a country album.
"I literally grew up 80 miles east from here, so I feel like Texas is a great place to bring this many people for this reason because we are very welcoming and all about hospitality," Lambert said.
Lambert is among the performers, which also include Brooks, Bryan, Aldean, McEntire, Lady Antebellum, Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt, the new artist of the year nominee with the current No. 1 song on the country charts with "Take Your Time."
Dierks Bentley, who follows Lambert with seven nominations, will also perform. Bentley was left out of entertainer of the year, but his nominations include album of the year for "Riser," song of the year for "I Hold On," single record of the year for "Drunk On a Plane" and male vocalist of the year, where he will compete Shelton and Bryan.
The comedic duo of Shelton and Bryan are returning as hosts for a third year.
Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, Brad Paisley, Brooks & Dunn and Little Big Town will also perform at the awards, airing live on CBS.
George Strait, Merle Haggard tribute kick off ACM Awards
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