NASHVILLE – From the opening moments of Eric Church standing quietly alone in a spotlight, singing “Amazing Grace,” to the Darius Rucker-led all-star rendition of Hootie and the Blowfish’s “Hold My Hand” to a surprise appearance by Eddie Montgomery to pay tribute to deceased bandmate Troy Gentry on a wistful, yet spirited “My Town,” the 51st annual Country Music Association Awards plucked a million heartstrings.
No doubt it would be tricky to balance the typical lightheartedness of the brightly spangled award show with the spate of recent tragedies, including, most deeply felt in this tight-knit community, the mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music festival last month.
But the musical choices and the opening sentiments expressed by longtime hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley achieved perfect pitch during the Wednesday night ceremony, which aired live from Bridgestone Arena.
“Tonight we’re going to do what families do – come together, pray together, cry together and sing together, too,” Underwood said.
Added Paisley, “The best way to honor our fans is to play our music, loud and proud. Our music lifts people up and that’s what we’re here to do tonight…this show is dedicated to all we’ve lost.”
Late in the show, Underwood cemented the dedication with a spellbinding rendition of the hymn “Softly and Tenderly,” which she performed in tribute to the year’s deceased country stars. The segment ended with a heartbreaking roll call of those killed in Las Vegas.
The decade-long chemistry between Paisley and Underwood – honed throughout the years from awkward knee-slappers to incisive one-liners – was on display as they tackled political humor (a parody of Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” directed at President Donald Trump – “Before He Tweets” – jumpstarted social media commentary) and engaged with monologue-crashers Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
Legendary country star Glen Campbell, who died in August, also received a major tribute with an emotive version of “Wichita Lineman” performed by Little Big Town and Jimmy Webb. The musician’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” with Willie Nelson, won music event of the year.
Backstage, Campbell’s wife, Kim, said she was “overwhelmed” with the support the family has received from the country music community.
“He’s an icon,” she said. “I’m so thrilled he’s able to be honored tonight. He loved Willie so much. I know he’d be smiling down at all this tonight.”
Little Big Town, whose Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman maintain Georgia ties, won a record-tying sixth award for vocal group of the year.
Fairchild expounded backstage on comments she made while accepting the award about the importance of harmony.
“I think we all need to focus on the things that are important. We’re a harmony band and it struck me up there (that) we’ve been together because we might not agree on everything, but we talk about everything and we’re friends and we need more of that community in our lives – and maybe we can put the differences aside,” she said.
The quartet also picked up an award for song of the year (“Better Man”), written by Taylor Swift, who is in New York rehearsing for “Saturday Night Live” and couldn’t attend.
Garth Brooks, who scored a consecutive Entertainer of the Year win, grabbed presenter Reba McEntire in a bear hug and said, upon being handed his award, “Getting this presented to me by THE entertainer of a lifetime…,” before shaking his head with a smile.
Other winners included Keith Urban, who picked up his first-ever single of the year CMA for “Blue Ain’t Your Color” (co-written by Washington, Ga., native Hillary Lindsey); Miranda Lambert, who earned her seventh female vocalist of the year trophy; Chris Stapleton for “From a Room: Vol. 1” in album of the year, as well as his third win for male vocalist of the year; and Jon Pardi for new artist of the year.
Most of the touted musical pairings were lackluster, although the Dierks Bentley/Rascal Flatts performance received an emotional jolt when Montgomery arrived to sing “My Town,” as photos of his recently deceased musical partner Gentry rolled behind them.
Maren Morris and soon-to-be-tourmate Niall Horan turned out an innocuous mash-up of her “I Could Use a Love Song” and his “Seeing Blind,” while McEntire and Kelsea Ballerini belting “Legends” was the expected union of a bright young star with country royalty.
A few solo performances fared better, including Pink’s gorgeously pensive “Barbies,” Stapleton’s “Broken Halos” and newly minted Country Music Hall of Fame member Alan Jackson with “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.”
The three-hour show also included a couple of surprises, including an insinuated Sugarland reunion and an appearance by Atlanta’s Tyler Perry, who shared some inspiring words that fit the theme of the night.
“I believe now, it has never been more important that we come together, find some common ground,” Perry said, earning an ovation. “(We need to) spend some time listening to each other and realizing that we are more alike than we are not alike. Great music has always been a bridge to doing just that.”