By Ken Tucker
Updated November 09, 2011 at 12:00 PM EST

The 45th Country Music Association Awards have turned into one of the most dependably entertaining awards shows of any sort on television. Wednesday night’s host combination of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood have become a comfortable comedy team. When they began the evening with jokes about Hank Williams Jr.’s perceived Obama/Hitler comparison — the Fox News appearance that got him punted out of prime-time football — and Hank himself joined them on stage, the trio got a standing ovation of hearty laughs. Herman Cain, take note: That’s one way to defuse a scandal.

The CMAs commenced with the show and ABC taking full advantage of what is probably NBC’s biggest star right now, The Voice‘s Blake Shelton, who was joined by Kenny Loggins for a smoke-and-dancers “Footloose” production number. (Shelton went on to win the Male Vocal award, a popularity-consensus win that provoked thanks from Shelton to “all you freakin’ crazy people” in the audience. Gotta like Blake.) The night was studded with pop stars smuggling themselves into the rich commercial field that is country music these days. Lionel Richie performed some of his biggest hits with Little Big Town, Darius Rucker, and Rascal Flatts, with a plug for Richie’s “new country album coming soon!”

In another genre-crossing team-up, the Flatts boys were joined by Natasha Bedingfield, who wore a skirt that appeared to be made of approximately 42 hotel bathrobes.

Other pairings: the Zac Brown Band singing “Georgia” with Gregg Allman (the former needed to remove that damn knit cap glued to his head — his voice veered flat at a key moment), and Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter singing acoustically, in lovely harmony. (It’s beginning to seem bafflingly impossible that Potter isn’t a bigger star, isn’t it?)

A lot of the music had a rock raucousness, a style Eric Church and Keith Urban (in separate performances) handled particularly well. But when it came to singing solo, accompanying herself on guitar, Taylor Swift’s performance of “Ours” achieved an effortless intimacy that reminded you all over again why she’s such a big star — and why her loss to Jason Aldean in the Best Album category came as one of the night’s bigger upsets. But Swift won the night’s biggest, Entertainer of the Year, and it was undeniably deserved.

Oh, right: the awards. They were kinda superfluous to the proceedings, one measure of a good music-awards show, I firmly believe, especially since the same acts, however deserving, tend to win over and over again (hello, Sugarland, hello Band Perry — how can you be Best New Artist when your biggest hit is at least a year and a half old?).

I felt a bit bad for Little Jimmy Dickens, trundled out on stage for a lame Justin Bieber joke, but hey, it means Little Jimmy is alive and well, so good for him! I felt even worse for Scotty McCreery, who when removed from the reality-disguising cocoon of American Idol is revealed as the bullfrog pipsqueak he is.

Vince Gill, Paisley, and Urban delivered a lovely tribute to Glen Campbell, who is enduring Alzheimer’s disease and came up from the audience at the climax of the salute. Campbell gave a thumbs-up and could be seen singing along to Paisley’s version of “Galveston.” Seated at the piano was Jimmy Webb, who wrote some of Campbell’s biggest hits, including the three performed this night.

The evening built to a performance by Faith Hill. (Neat bookending, this: Hank and Faith, football-anthem singers.) Hill performed a pretty ballad, “Come Home,” from her forthcoming album, her first collection of new songs since, I believe, 2005. She can be reserved and contained on stage, but Hill seemed loose and elated to be singing for such a large audience; it was terrific to see her back.

Did you watch the CMAs?