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LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Kenny Chesney won entertainer of the year for the fourth straight time at the 43rd Annual Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday -- but said backstage that organizers had devalued the top prize by making it a "sweepstakes" up for vote on the Internet.
Carrie Underwood was named top female vocalist for the second year in a row and 18-year-old Taylor Swift, country music's hottest young star, snagged her first award and stole the show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas with a wardrobe-changing, water-drenched performance.
This year marked the first that the academy let fans choose the top entertainer award -- reflecting the "American Idol" era of entertainment -- and Chesney took issue with that move.
"I don't think it's right that they picked the one award that means the most, that all artists sacrificed the most for, and turned it into ... a sweepstakes, to seeing who can push people's buttons the hardest on the Internet," Chesney said.
"It's a complete disrespect of the artists. I think because of that it really diminishes the integrity of the work."
Chesney, whose fourth win in the top category tied him with best-selling country artist Garth Brooks, was careful to say he wasn't criticizing fans and was appreciative of the academy, even if he took issue with the Web vote.
"It's not tainted in any way and I'm proud to say I'm going down in the history books with Garth Brooks but you've got to admit, it's a different award," he said.
Underwood, an "American Idol" winner who has become one of country music's best-selling artists, opened the show with her latest single, "Last Name," and later joined top male vocalist winner Brad Paisley in a tribute to legend Eddy Arnold.
Former "Idol" contestant Kellie Pickler, who has also been embraced by the country music world but lost the best new female vocalist award to Swift, sang her new single, "Don't You Know You're Beautiful."
Swift, who at the tender age of 18 has already sold more than 3 million copies of her debut album and been pegged as country music's next breakout star, thanked her mother during a brief but emotional acceptance speech.
Swift also delivered what may become the night's best-remembered performance, starting a rousing version of her hit "Should've Said No" in hooded sweatshirt and jeans that were torn away in mid-song to reveal a slinky black dress.
Swift ended the song with water pouring on her from above that left her soaked and shivering onstage.
The night also featured a special Crystal Milestone Award to Brooks as the "best-selling solo artist of all time" and his raucous medley of hits drew a standing ovation.
Brooks, who is married to country crooner Trisha Yearwood, mistakenly referred to host Reba McEntire as "Miss Yearwood" during his acceptance speech
"I butchered it and had a great time doing it," Brooks said backstage. "I called Ms. McEntire my wife. I screwed it up and had a great time doing it."
Editing by Eric Walsh