"This one is really extra special because long before I had a hit record, the fans always came to the shows. And I want to thank you guys for voting and for being there for me," said Chesney when accepting his award, which fans voted on for the first time. This is the singer's fourth consecutive win in that category, tying Garth Brooks for the honor.
After winning the night's most important award, Chesney, 40, criticized the Academy's new method for picking the entertainer of the year by using fan votes. He said the organization had turned the category "into a sweepstakes to see who can push people's buttons the hardest on the Internet."
Brooks, who has won a total of 18 ACMs throughout his career, was the first artist to receive the Academy's Crystal Milestone Award. Dick Clark, Jay Leno, and Billy Joel were among the stars who congratulated him via satellite.
Taylor Swift, 18, who nabbed two major prizes at last month's CMT Awards, dedicated her top new female vocalist award to her mom saying, "Mom, thank you so much. I love you. This is for you!"
Carrie Underwood, 25, took home the trophy for top female vocalist for the second consecutive year, and Brad Paisley, 35, won the same prize in the male category.
Other major winners of the night included Miranda Lambert's "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" for album of the year, Sugarland's "Stay" for song of the year and Lady Antebellum for best new duo/vocal group. (Check out their People.com video diary here.)
REUTERS / Steve Marcus / Landov
Miranda Lambert heated things up with "Gun Powder and Lead." Then, Swift cooled the stage back down with her dripping wet performance of "Should've Said No," during which she danced in water pouring from the ceiling.
After performing solo, Chesney and George Strait, who was celebrating his 56th birthday, teamed up to sing their nominated duet "Shiftwork" for the first time live.
Surrounded by fans, dad-to-be Keith Urban, who says he's "very excited" about fatherhood, performed "Tu Compania" along with new artist nominee Sarah Buxton as Urban's wife Nicole Kidman watched on.
After LeAnn Rimes, Montgomery Gentry closed the show, which was hosted by Reba McEntire for the tenth time.
MORE ON THE AWARDS
Exclusive! Backstage at the ACM Awards
Vegas Goes Country! Photo Special
Caught in the Act: ACM Awards Edition!