NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Veteran Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman capped an emotional year in which he lost his 5-year-old daughter in a tragic accident by winning artist of the year during the Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards on Thursday.
Chapman won the night's top honor for the seventh time in his career, which spans more than two decades and includes five Grammy Awards and 56 Dove Awards. The category was one of two in which fans chose the winner, the other being new artist of the year.
Chapman's 5-year-old daughter, Maria Sue, was killed last May when she was accidentally hit by a vehicle driven by her older brother in the driveway of the family's home. The singer, who stood beside his wife, Mary Beth, said the tragedy allowed the family to share their faith.
"There are a lot of reasons that are unique to this year that are probably why I'm standing here," said Chapman, who also took songwriter of the year honors. "In the last year, we've been given an opportunity we never would have signed up for to communicate the hope we have."
Chapman performed a touching ballad, "Cinderella," he dedicated to his late daughter, prompting a standing ovation.
Backstage, he said the experience of the past year has deepened his understanding of his songs.
Other big winners were Brandon Heath, who won male vocalist and song of the year, and Natalie Grant, who won the female vocalist trophy for the fourth year in a row.
Heath won on the success of his pleading hit "Give Me Your Eyes," a pop-styled contemporary song in which he pleads to be given a love for humanity.
Backstage, Heath said he is proud to be part of Christian music but would like to see it reach a wider audience.
"I wonder what God is telling me to say and how to say it," Heath said, clutching his two gold trophies.
Grant thanked Christian radio for playing music by female artists. She performed the funky R&B-flavored "Make it Matter" with Group 1 Crew.
"If I can make it, everybody can," Grant said. "To every young female out there watching this tonight: Keep writing your songs and keep blooming where you are planted because God always has the final word."
Tenth Avenue North won new artist of the year. The group's singer Mike Donehey described the award as "icing on the cake."
"When we set out to make this album we made a bold, audacious prayer that we wanted people to not just hear the songs but to encounter Christ himself," Donehey said.
Perennial favorites Casting Crowns won group of the year for the fifth straight time. The band's Mark Hall praised Christian music for its depth.
"There is so much good, good music being made out there," Hall said. "What I love about Christian music is it doesn't point to itself. It points to something much bigger and that is that God loves you."
The duo Mary, Mary won best urban contemporary song, and Bernie Herms won producer of the year.
Musical performances were a big part of the show, which was broadcast live from the Grand Ole Opry House on the Gospel Music Channel.
Mary, Mary opened the show with their uplifting R&B song "Get Up" and shouted to the crowd "Put your hands together if you love Jesus."
Miss California Carrie Prejean received a standing ovation when she introduced a performance by Mercy Me of their hit "I Can Only Imagine."
Prejean has drawn attention for her comments against gay marriage at the Miss USA pageant, where she was first runner-up last weekend.
Prejean did not speak about the controversy during the show, but backstage she said she had no regrets about her remarks and learned from the experience that "you have to stay true to your beliefs."
Third Day performed "Revelation," which opened with a somber piano and built in intensity to a searing electric guitar solo.
A medley of new artists Daylight, Francesca Battistelli, Chris Sligh and others showed the diversity of gospel music, from rock to pop to traditional.
Sandi Patty and other artists paid tribute to gospel great Dottie Rambo, who died last year when the bus she was in ran off a road in southwest Missouri and struck an embankment. She was 74.
For a complete list of winners, see http://www.doveawards.com/doveawards/
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