By Vernell Hackett
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - The Academy of Country Music Awards kicked off on Sunday with Carrie Underwood singing her new song, the rocking "Good Girl," and co-host Blake Shelton declaring "this is the party of the year" for country music.
Hosted by Shelton and Reba McEntire, the awards program annually is among the biggest events in country music and numerous stars from Jason Aldean and Kenny Chesney to Martina McBride, Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum are on hand.
Chesney comes into the show with a leading nine nominations followed by Aldean with six and Lady Antebellum with five.
Chesney is a favorite to take home his fifth entertainer of the year award, but he faces the likes of Swift, who at age 22 has already won that award twice, and is coming off a recent Grammy victory for best country song with "Mean."
Both Chesney and Swift face stiff competition from popular Aldean and Blake Shelton, who has seen his star rise this past year as a judge on highly-rated TV show "The Voice." Rounding out the category is veteran Brad Paisley.
The show started with Shelton and McEntire trading barbs with each other. She chided him about his strong year crossing over into mainstream TV stardom, and he teasing her about her veteran status in country music.
Along with Underwood's song at the top of the show, early performances included Chris Young singing "Save Water, Drink Beer," and the Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry both belting out tunes for a packed house at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Among key awards later in the evening, Paisley is a contender to take home his sixth male vocalist award, a trophy he's held in his hands since 2006. Also nominated in that category are Chesney, Aldean, Shelton and former "Nashville Star" TV singing contest winner Chris Young.
Swift, McBride and Miranda Lambert all will vie for best female vocalist, squaring off against Sara Evans and Carrie Underwood. Lady Antebellum feature prominently in the race for top vocal group against The Band Perry, Eli Young Band, Rascal Flatts and Zac Brown Band.
In keeping with Academy of Country Music (ACM) tradition, presenters at Sunday night's show come from a wide-ranging collection of Hollywood entertainers and recording artists. Among those expected to join the country stars are Ashton Kutcher and Marc Anthony, actor Liam Hemsworth, rockers Kiss and TV host Nancy O'Dell.
Rascal Flatts will join forces with actor/comedian-turned-bluegrass star Steve Martin on their new single, "Banjo," and Toby Keith is set to perform his runaway hit "Red Solo Cup."
Before Sunday's show, one award already had been handed out. Thompson Square was given the vocal duo of the year trophy on Saturday at the ACM "Salute to the Military" concert.
(Reporting by Vernell Hackett; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)