NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - As stars began the walk down the carpet and fans screamed a few hundred yards away, Willie Nelson took a quiet moment on his bus before joining the celebration at the Country Music Association Awards.
Set to participate in a tribute with Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Blake Shelton and Lady Antebellum and receive a lifetime achievement award, Nelson admitted Thursday afternoon he was looking forward to the evening as he sat at his miniature kitchen table.
"It's about me," Nelson joked. "Duh."
The 79-year-old singer walked the carpet later with his wife, Annie. One of the most beloved figures in not just country music, but American popular culture, Nelson was stopped several times for hugs. He deflected most questions about the award with jokes: "It's a great honor and I'm glad I achieved something."
The tribute to Nelson isn't likely to be the only poignant moment when country music's biggest stars take the stage Thursday night for the Country Music Association Awards: They'll also be reaching out to help those affected by Superstorm Sandy.
"Country fans are so amazing and so giving," co-host Carrie Underwood said. "To make sure everybody can pitch in, that's going to be really important."
Underwood and fellow host Brad Paisley said in a Wednesday interview there are plans to seek Red Cross donations during the broadcast, just three days after Sandy killed dozens and caused billions in damage in the northeastern U.S.
This year's ceremony is also reaching out to a younger-skewing audience with the faces that are helping shift country's fan base.
"I think it's great for the format because going forward you have this youth and vitality in the format, in the fan base," lead nominee Eric Church said. "It's a chance to grow a format that I don't think we've ever had in country. I don't know if it's ever been like it is now, especially with young people, in country music."
From Taylor Swift's army of empowered young women to the power-drinking party boys who prefer Church and Jason Aldean, country's audience is much different than it was 10 years ago and that's reflected in the awards. Church benefited with five nominations, including first-time appearances in the album and male vocalist of the year categories.
He's not the only one. Country performers who have tasted their most significant success within the last five years outnumber the more established stars who've counted hits for a decade or more. Those newer artists also received the lion's share of the nominations.
That may not be unusual in the pop, rock and hip-hop worlds. But country has long been a genre defined by listeners - and often stars - 35 and over.
The CMAs show that time may be over.
Swift and Aldean are nominated in the entertainer of the year category with Kenny Chesney, Paisley and Blake Shelton. Luke Bryan and Church rewrote the script in two categories - male vocalist where they elbowed out established stars like three-time winner Paisley and Chesney and album of the year. They join young acts Miranda Lambert and Lady A in that category with Dierks Bentley rounding it out.
The vocal group category also is stocked only with younger hitmakers - Lady Antebellum, Zac Brown Band, The Band Perry and Eli Young Band join industry veterans Little Big Town. And new acts The Civil Wars, Love and Theft and Thompson Square join Big & Rich and Sugarland in the vocal duo category.
Whether that new wave will go home with a majority of trophies remains to be seen when the show starts at 8 p.m. EDT, live on ABC from the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. But they got off to a slow start as winners in two categories were announced on "Good Morning America." Chesney and McGraw's "Feel Like a Rock Star" won musical event of the year and Toby Keith's "Red Solo Cup" won video of the year.
The broadcast caps a long day of celebration that started with a televised Reba McEntire performance in front of the arena and escalated as stars like Church, Aldean and Lady A arrived.
Fans held handmade signs aimed at getting Swift's attention. Rising star Brantley Gilbert rode up on a Harley Davidson motorcycle before greeting fans. Kellie Pickler showed up in a silver dress and ultra-short hairdo after donating her golden locks to cancer victims. Hunter Hayes and Luke Bryan received some of the loudest screams from teenage fans. And art imitated life as Hayden Panettiere and stars from the new show "Nashville" walked the carpet, drawing cheers just like the real-life performers they mimic on the hour-long drama.
Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland showed off her baby bump in a black Donna Karan dress - which she loved because "it fits a pregnant body." Not all of her wardrobe did, however.
"Walking in heels is a bit of a challenge at this point," she joked.
AP writer Caitlin R. King in Nashville contributed to this report.
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