McGraw made something of a comeback this year, releasing his first post-Curb Records album and reclaiming his place as one of country's most bankable stars under a new record deal with Big Machine Records. McGraw acknowledged his fellow honorees while accepting his new trophy.
"The new artists that are coming along are making great music," McGraw said. "The other ... five artists ... that I'm here with tonight, that's what keeps me going and that's what inspires me to make music. They teach me something every time I see them on tour ... or every time I spend a few minutes sitting and talking with somebody. Every time I hear one of their records, it inspires me to go back in the studio and make better records and get better at what I do and get better at my craft."
Florida Georgia Line member Brian Kelley returned the hosannas: "Thank you for making amazing music. You're the reason so many people move to Nashville, Tenn., to make country music."
The duo's "Cruise," featuring Nelly, was the year's biggest country music song, and served as something of a dividing line for the genre's fans. Alabama noted the debate while introducing FGL.
"They remind us of us," singer Randy Owen said. "Everybody hated our ass."
FGL, which also includes Tyler Hubbard, performed new hit "Stay." Lady Antebellum performed McGraw's "Highway Don't Care" with Peter Frampton handling guitar solo duties. Hunter Hayes and Pat Monahan of Train mashed up their hits "I Want Crazy" and "Hey Soul Sister." Travis Tritt performed Aldean's "Night Train" with Cassadee Pope, and Bryan topped off the show by choosing to perform duets of "Oh No" and "All Night Long" with Lionel Richie.
Bryan was the night's final honoree, a tip of the cap to the year he's had. Bryan has the top-selling country album released in 2013, was the Academy of Country Music's top honoree and shook his rear to the top of the genre.
"I never expected my butt to get so much attention," Bryan joked.
Follow AP Music Writer Chris Talbott: http://twitter.com/Chris_Talbott .