"That's how it needs to be because he's not just entertainer of the year, he's entertainer of the last three decades, I guess, or four decades," Shelton said. "I don't know who's keeping score. I mean, it's George Strait. He's King George. I couldn't be happier with how this turned out."
Shelton was one of five top winners with two trophies apiece, along with Florida Georgia Line and the trio of Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, who won music video and music event of the year for their "Highway Don't Care" collaboration.
Like Strait, Swift also was going for her third entertainer of the year, which would have been a CMA record for a woman. Like Shelton, she couldn't have cared less when she lost, instead hugging Faith Hill as they cried tears of joy for Strait. She noted they've both opened for Strait in their careers and she recounted a story about how Strait and his wife Norma dropped in to one of her first headlining concerts when she was a teenager just to wish her luck.
The crowd gave Strait a standing ovation as he made his way to the stage, and stayed standing throughout his speech. It wasn't just a special night for those in the arena. It was also the show's top trending moment on Facebook.
His retirement from the road has gained lots of attention, but Strait isn't a relic. He recently earned his record 60th No. 1 and signed a five-album deal with Universal Music Nashville.
Backstage, he shared with reporters how it has felt as he circles the country on his The Cowboy Rides Away tour, his last.
"When I first started out this year, the first few shows, I about lost it every night, you know, leaving the stage ... thinking, 'This might be the last time I ever play on this stage again,'" Strait said.
Strait's victory capped a show that was simultaneously focused on the past, present and future.
Shelton, his wife Miranda Lambert and Swift all continued their winning ways. Shelton took album of the year for "Based on a True Story ...," and won his fourth male vocalist of the year. Voters supplied some symmetry when they named Lambert female vocalist of the year, also for the fourth time, tying her with friend Reba McEntire.
It was the third straight year in which Lambert or Shelton were among the top winners, and capped a year in which they were dogged by tabloid stories about their relationship. Lambert said she wasn't sure why the CMA's 6,000 voters love the couple so much.
"You know, pillow talk, literally, we're like, 'Well, our year was last year,'" Lambert said. "It was great, a great run while we had it. We'll drink tonight and celebrate all of our friends winning, because literally all of my friends won awards tonight."
Swift, who performed a somber, acoustic version of her hit "Red" with Vince Gill, Alison Krauss and Sam Bush, won her eighth and ninth CMA trophies before being honored with the association's Pinnacle Award, given to an artist who has taken country to a worldwide audience.
The CMA brought a star-studded welcoming group on stage for Swift that included Strait, Rascal Flatts, McGraw and Hill, Urban and Brad Paisley — all of whom gave Swift a chance to open for them on the road a teenager. A video salute followed with appearances by Justin Timberlake, Julia Roberts, Carly Simon, Ethel Kennedy and Mick Jagger — whose appearance made Swift shout.
"You've made me feel so special right now, thank you," Swift said.
Voters also cast an eye to the future, handing trophies to young stars Florida Georgia Line and Kacey Musgraves, who was a top nominee with Swift.
Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley scored single and vocal duo of the year. Their quick wins early in the show was more proof the so-called bro country movement is the sound of the moment in mainstream country. Florida Georgia Line kicked off the show performing a fist-pumping medley with Luke Bryan, and quickly returned to the stage to take the trophy for single of the year for their "Cruise" remix featuring Nelly. They also played the new song "Round Here."
"It's been a constant thing all year — we've been trying to wrap our minds around what's going on," Hubbard said backstage of the band's platinum success. "It's been a dream come true for us and a huge blessing for us and something we could have never imagined."
Musgraves won the new artist trophy, besting a field that included Florida Georgia Line.
"It's amazing what 52 weeks can do to a person," Musgraves said backstage. "... Last year I had really crappy seats. You know, I was just sitting back with my roommate just as a fan. And here I am holding this thing."
Lee Brice's "I'd Drive Your Truck," about a fallen soldier whose father still drives his truck, won song of the year, and Little Big Town took its second straight vocal group of the year.
Collaboration was the theme of the night as Strait and Alan Jackson joined together to salute the late George Jones with a rendition of "She Stopped Loving Him Today." Hunter Hayes and Jason Mraz took a tour of the Bridgestone Arena while performing "Everybody's Got Somebody But Me." And in one of the night's most anticipated moments, Kenny Rogers received the CMA's Willie Nelson lifetime achievement award.