NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ She's been honored at the Grammys and she's been on MTV. Yet for years, Shania Twain's sexy brand of country music didn't get much recognition from her peers.

Until now.

On Wednesday, Twain received long-overdue recognition as the Country Music Association honored her as its Entertainer of the Year. It was the first time the top-selling Twain had ever been honored by the 6,000 industry leaders who cast ballots for the winners.

Twain, who won two Grammys earlier this year, was in tears after receiving the CMA honor. Backstage, the Canadian singer acknowledged the controversy her midriff-baring image and pop-leaning music has caused in Nashville.

``Well, I'm not just a lap dancer after all,'' she said, referring to one of the more unkind jabs.

The award for Twain, whose crossover appeal has landed her on and the cover of magazines like Rolling Stone and People, comes at a time when country music's popularity has dipped.

Sales have flattened since peaking in 1995 at about $2 billion. After an uptick of 2.7 percent last year, sales were down about 3 percent for the first half of 1999.

Country music's market share of sales has declined to 14.1 percent, according to the Recording Industry Association of America's 1998 Consumer Profile. That's still second _ rock is first at 25.7 percent _ but country's share has declined each year since peaking at 18.7 percent in 1993.

One country music veteran noticeably absent from the awards show was George Jones. He was angry that he was asked, along with other nominees, to perform a shortened version of ``Choices,'' which was up for best single. The CMA routinely makes such requests due to time constraints.

Jones was watching the show from home when Alan Jackson brought the audience at the Grand Ole Opry to its feet when he sang a few lines from ``Choices'' at the end of his own performance.

``He cried,'' said Evelyn Shriver, president of Asylum Records, Jones' record company. ``He said it was the greatest honor ever bestowed on him.''

A Jackson spokeswoman, Kay West, said the singer was inspired by a visit to Jones earlier this year in the hospital. Jones nearly died because of a car wreck.

``Alan said that had George Jones died there, there would have been a 10 minute tribute to him on the show,'' West said. ``But he lived, and they wouldn't give him three minutes.''

Ed Benson, head of the CMA, said he took no offense at Jackson's actions.

``Alan is a great traditional country artist, and he paid tribute to another great traditional country artist,'' Benson said. ``That's fine.''

In other awards, the Dixie Chicks won their second straight award for best vocal group and their ``Wide Open Spaces'' was named best single and video. Tim McGraw won best male vocalist and best album for ``A Place in the Sun.'' He picked up a second award for producing the album.

Martina McBride was named best female vocalist, and Brooks & Dunn won their eighth straight trophy for best vocal duo.

``Thanks, we know you're getting tired of seeing us up here, but we really appreciate you giving it to us again,'' Ronnie Dunn said.

Jo Dee Messina won the Horizon Award for career progress.

The Dixie Chicks opened the show with a dynamic ``Ready to Run,'' making their entrance from under the grass skirts of three backup dancers on stilts.

Twain sported a hot pink ensemble to sing ``Come On Over,'' and was presented with an unannounced award for promoting country music overseas.

Two pop acts performed duets with country singers: Merle Haggard was joined by Jewel on ``That's the Way Love Goes'' and 'N Sync and Alabama performed ``God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You.''

In the audience were pop singer Britney Spears and actors Billy Bob Thornton and Laura Dern. Thornton presented the vocal event award to Gill, who won for ``My Kind of Woman/My Kind of Man,'' a duet with Patty Loveless. Loveless, who is taking a year off, did not attend.

Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty and Johnny Bond were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame along with Parton.

``I feel like I died and went to hillbilly heaven,'' Parton said.