NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Though still largely the domain of men, triumphs by Taylor Swift and The Band Perry at the Country Music Association Awards show that the young women of country music are finding their voices and shoving the boys out of the way.
Swift won the CMA's entertainer of the year for the second time Wednesday night, Kimberly Perry of sibling act The Band Perry took home song of the year and two other awards with her brothers, Neil and Reid. Add in wins by Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum and Sugarland, and the songwriting strength of today's country girls is undeniable.
"When Taylor won entertainer I secretly sang (Beyonce's) 'Who runs the world? Girls,' to Blake," Lambert said after she and husband Blake Shelton repeated as male and female vocalist of the year. "I'm just really happy that females are starting to be very prominent and it is the female singer-songwriter.
"It's so cool that Kimberly wrote song of the year by herself. And that's a dream of mine. I'm just so happy the girls were really celebrated tonight."
Celebrated like rarely before. Swift became the second woman to win entertainer of the year twice, joining Barbara Mandrell, and she did it by the age of 21.
"To win it twice is like the coolest thing ever happening to me twice," Swift said backstage. "I'm freaking out right now."
She's inspired legions of young girls to take up guitar and write their own songs, and she has spread the gospel of country music to the Far East, filling stadiums like few others can. She crossed the 20 million mark in album sales and has almost no rival in the genre when it comes to bringing converts over the wall.
She's made all that headway on the strength of her songs. She loves nothing better than the process of turning inspiration into something that makes a connection with people all over the planet.
"All of the sudden this idea that was just yours is now everybody else's and they sing it in their cars and sing it about their breakups or falling in love and they incorporate it into their lives," Swift said.
Perry experienced a similar kind of revelation when her song "If I Die Young" conquered country radio then began to crossover on to pop stations. Rarely do country songs resonate across genres, and that the melancholy "If I Die Young" ran hard in the face of the successful formula so many follow made it even more impressive.
The song earned Perry song of the year, which goes to the writer, and The Band Perry, which includes her brothers, single of the year and new artist of the year.
Perry said the song came to her one afternoon and she got most of it down right away. She showed it to her mom and said she thought she'd bring it to Nashville to get help from another songwriter to finish it, but her mother encouraged her to keep ownership. It turned out to be the right choice.
"We sort of feel like we are part of the country evangelism scene and we love to hear country songs on pop radio," she said.
Crossing over was another strong theme of the night.
Jason Aldean, who earned his first major CMA award when his platinum-selling "My Kinda Party" won album of the year, also won musical event of the year for his duet "Don't You Wanna Stay" with pop star Kelly Clarkson. And Kenny Chesney won music video of the year for his duet "You and Tequila" with rocker Grace Potter.
Lady Antebellum, whose crossover appeal is rivaled only by Swift's, won its third straight vocal group of the year award and Sugarland took vocal duo of the year for the fifth straight time.
That theme also carried over to the stage where stars from different genres came together for some of the CMA's strongest performances. The show also featured plenty of sexy dancing, fire and belching smoke special effects and, at one point, acrobats spinning down from the ceiling on lengths of unspooling fabric.
Lionel Richie had every star buzzing on the red carpet before performing duets from his new country album with Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker and Little Big Town. He posed for a picture with Lambert and gave advice to Lady Antebellum on the red carpet.
Gregg Allman joined fellow Peach State natives Zac Brown Band on "Georgia on my Mind," Natasha Bedingfield, in a dress that featured a fluffy red skirt, joined Rascal Flatts on stage to perform their duet "Easy," and that was just the start of genre shuffling.
Shelton and Kenny Loggins opened the show with a high-energy version of Loggins' hit "Footloose." Later, Glen Campbell, one of country's biggest crossover pioneers who is now battling Alzheimer's disease, was given a musical tribute when Vince Gill, Keith Urban and Brad Paisley sang three of his songs.
Richie hadn't performed on the CMAs since 1986 when he appeared with Alabama. He noted the show has changed dramatically over the decades, as has country music.
"It's Cirque de Soleil ... it's full-on production," Richie said. "This is off-the-chain. This is the Oscars of the music business, the CMAs."
Lambert and Shelton made a little history when they took male and female vocalist of the year. They're the second married couple to win the awards in the same year.
"Congrats to my hubby, too," Lambert shouted from the stage to Shelton on the eve of her 28th birthday. "It's going to be a good night tonight, baby!" The camera cut to Shelton, who rubbed his hands together and smiled devilishly.