Standing up to President Bush was rewarded last night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles as country-rock trio the Dixie Chicks won big at the 49th annual Grammy awards.

The Chicks took home five awards, including album of the year for Taking the Long Way, and song and record of the year for "Not Ready to Make Nice," their musical refusal to apologize for criticizing the President in the run-up to the start of the Iraq war in 2003.

California funk-rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers and hip-hop soul woman Mary J. Blige also cleaned up. The Chili Peppers captured four awards, including best rock album for their double CD, Stadium Arcadium. Blige, who led all nominees with eight nods, won three golden gramophones, including best R&B song and performance for "Be Without You," and best R&B album for The Breakthrough.

American Idol champ-turned-country-star Carrie Underwood, named the best new artist, also won three awards in all, taking home two trophies for her song, "Jesus, Take the Wheel."

"For the first time in my life, I'm speechless," said the Chicks' singer and controversy starter Natalie Maines, who thanked bandmates Emily Robison and Martie Maguire "for sticking by me."

The Chicks, who have been dropped by country radio stations, nonetheless took home best country album prize. Maines relished the moment: "A lot of people just turned their TVs off, I'm sorry about that."

Blige, known as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul and famous for pouring out her heart in drama-filled songs dedicated to "all my troubled sisters," also starred in a Chevrolet commercial that aired during the telecast, along with country singers Big & Rich and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"This is a great night for me," she said, accepting an award. Earlier, she thanked what may have been a record 55 people in a run-on acceptance speech. "But I don't think you can have a peak, when you don't have a valley. And it's when you're in the valley that you find out who you really are."

Winners taking home two gramophones included alternative duo Gnarls Barkley, guitarist John Mayer, Justin Timberlake, rapper Ludacris, neo-soul singer John Legend and rapper T.I.

With only 13 of the Recording Academy's 108 Grammys given away in prime time, most are awarded in a pre-show event.

Michael Brecker, the Cheltenham-born jazz saxophonist who died last month after a long battle with myelodysplastic syndrome, won best jazz instrumental solo for "Some Skunk Funk," performed with his trumpeter brother Randy.

Philadelphia jazz and soul singer Jill Scott won her second Grammy - she took home a trophy in 2005 - in the traditional R&B performance category for her collaboration with George Benson and Al Jarreau on Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child."

But the real Grammy prize is the exposure that comes with snagging a much-lusted-after performance slot, and the spike in CD sales that can follow it.

Unfortunately, few of the performers made the most of their time, with many of the production numbers rehashing hits of decades ago, as if the music industry's best prescription for a troubled future was to listlessly revive the past.

Exceptions included a knockout performance by Christina Aguilera on James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," and a collaboration between rapper Ludacris, Blige, and Earth, Wind & Fire on "Runaway Love." The rapper thanked the Fox News host who's one of his frequent critics, giving "a special shout out to Bill O'Reilly, I love you."

Gnarls Barkley performed their hit "Crazy" while dressed as airline pilots and accompanied by a full orchestra. And the Chicks, after being introduced by '60s folkie Joan Baez, drew a deserved standing ovation for an ardent "Not Ready To Make Nice."

Red-carpet stragglers late to arrive were in danger of missing the reunion of British trio the Police. A sleeveless and buff Sting and bandmates Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland - who are expected to announce a summer tour today in Los Angles - kicked off the show with a brief if spirited version of their call-girl call-out, "Roxanne." Presenter Jamie Foxx followed them by quipping that "when Snoop Dogg heard the Police were opening the show, he left."

Super Bowl music star Prince introduced Beyoncé, whose character in the film Dreamgirls is accused of having "a voice with no personality." The diva did her best to demonstrate otherwise with a bombastic rendition of "Listen," from the Motown-inspired movie.

The country portion of the show included Underwood swinging impressively on Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys' "San Antonio Rose." Then she changed out of her cowgirl outfit to participate, along with Gary LeVox of pseudo-country softies Rascal Flatts, in an uninspired session of Eagles karaoke that was completely unnecessary, though no more so than Lionel Richie's version of his '80's hit, "Hello."

Borrowing from American Idol, viewers were allowed to vote on which of three aspiring female singers were to perform with Timberlake. The winner, Robyn Troup, joined the former N' Syncer for Bill Wither's "Ain't No Sunshine" as well as his own "My Love."

Lifetime achievement awards were presented to the Doors, Maria Callas, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Ornette Coleman, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Booker T & the MGs and A&M record label founders Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/dandeluca.