By Vernell Hackett
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Blake Shelton dominated the Country Music Association awards on Thursday, taking home three trophies, including the coveted entertainer of the year prize, on country music's biggest night.
Shelton, 36, whose popularity has rocketed since he became a judge in 2011 on the TV singing contest "The Voice," also won male vocalist of the year for a third time.
Shelton shared song of the year honors with his wife, Miranda Lambert, for the emotional ballad "Over You", while Lambert took home the female vocalist prize, also for the third time.
Shelton looked stunned as he accepted the biggest award of the night, beating out recent arrivals Jason Aldean, country-pop crossover sensation Taylor Swift and veterans Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney. He has not released an album since "Red River Blue" in July 2011.
"Man! Entertainer of the year? What are you talking about?" he said. "I know I am not out there on the road as much. I don't know how this happened. I freaking love it though."
"I know I have a side job," he said, referring to his TV gig, "but country music is still what I love doing."
Swift, who won entertainer of the year last year and in 2009, and Aldean both came away empty-handed. Eric Church, who went into Thursday's awards show with a leading five nominations, went home with one award - album of the year for "Chief."
"I spent a lot of my career wondering where I fit in - country or rock? I want to thank you guys for giving me somewhere to hang my hat," said Church, 35, sporting a baseball cap and sunglasses.
Church, who got his first CMA nomination just a year ago, told reporters backstage that he never thought he could win a CMA award. "I can distinctly remember playing for about eight people in Amarillo, Texas, about four years ago and to get from there to here is surreal," he said.
REMEMBERING VICTIMS OF SANDY
The awards show, broadcast live from Nashville, kicked off with a shout-out to those affected on the U.S. East Coast by Hurricane Sandy, and included appeals to viewers to donate to the Red Cross during the show.
"Country music has always lifted people up in tough times, and we hope to do that tonight," said co-host Carrie Underwood.
The country world paid tribute to singer and songwriter Willie Nelson, 79, and his storied career, presenting him with the inaugural Willie Nelson lifetime achievement award.
Nelson performed his signature 1980 song "On the Road Again," while Lady Antebellum, Shelton, Keith Urban, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw did the honors with a medley of his hits "Crazy," "Whiskey River" and "Good Hearted Woman."
"How many push-ups can you do with that one?" joked Nelson as he accepted the huge trophy. "Thank you all out there. Appreciate it."
Alabama quartet Little Big Town scooped up two awards, winning vocal group of the year, and single of the year for the group's hit record "Pontoon."
The band, which started out in 1998 but did not begin to make an impact until 2005, was ecstatic. "This has been a 13-year journey. Nashville, you have made us your band," said singer Kimberley Schlapman.
The show also saw performances by Swift, debuting her new single, Dierks Bentley, The Band Perry, Aldean, the Zac Brown Band and Kelly Clarkson.
Husband-and-wife team Thompson Square took home the prize for best vocal duo, and Louisiana native Hunter Hayes, 21, was named best new artist.
"Can you believe we were singing for tips for eight years down on Broadway and now we've won this award? It's one of the most wonderful nights of our lives so far," Keifer Thompson of Thompson Square told reporters backstage.
(Writing by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Peter Cooney)