It was a night of reflection, emotion and standing ovations at the 2019 CMT Artists of the Year event. Hosted at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville on Wednesday (Oct. 16), Carrie Underwood, Thomas Rhett, Luke Combs, Kane Brown and Dan + Shay were honored for their exceptional work over the past year. Though two of the honorees were absent (Underwood and Combs had shows in other states, but videoed in), the evening offered mixed emotions as the artists expressed thankfulness for the award, while bringing the spirit of the event to a humble place.
Here are five of the best moments from the 2019 CMT Artists of the Year special:
Sam Hunt is “Fancy”
Sam Hunt closed out the show with a rousing cover of CMT Artist of a Lifetime recipient Reba McEntire’s career-defining hit, “Fancy.” A surprise selection for the rap-meets-country star, Hunt delivered one of the best performances of the night. Altering the arrangement in a way that drew out the country and rock fusion in the classic tune, he almost didn’t sound like himself — the smooth flow and euphonious tone in his voice shining through in a new way. He left the crowd in awe and praising his interpretation, with several guests remarking on their hopes that he’ll continue to stay in this lane of traditional country.
Kane Brown honors late drummer, Kenny Dixon
Brown delivered one of the most moving moments of the night when dedicating his award to his close friend and drummer Kenny Dixon, who passed away in a car accident on Oct. 12. Brown bravely took to the stage to offer a loving tribute to his friend, the room silent and energy solemn as he reminisced on Dixon’s support for him since the days of building his fanbase through social media. “People didn’t think we would make it, he was with me the whole time,” Brown said through tears, the audience intently listening to each word as he spoke. “He was so supportive of me. I love you man, I miss you, the band misses you.” His speech culminated in a standing ovation and poignant performance from his friend Chris Young, who sang his latest single “Drowning,” which he wrote about a friend who died in a car accident, building on the emotion that added a sobering element to the night’s meaning.
Thomas Rhett offers a prayer
Brown touched many audience members with his heartfelt dedication, including fellow honoree Rhett. The singer used his time on stage to embrace Brown not with a speech, but through prayer. “I don’t know if this is very conventional, but can I just pray really fast, is that ok with everybody?” he said to applause from the crowd. As people bowed their heads, Rhett shared that “loss is something that we can’t comprehend” and asked for peace for Brown and Dixon and their families, serving as thoughtful affirmation during the broadcast.
Ashley McBryde reflects on impactful year
After a strong and confident performance of her single “One Night Standards,” viewers witnessed CMT Breakout Artist of the Year winner Ashley McBryde’s journey unfold on screen, from her breakthrough performance on stage with Eric Church to getting choked up standing in the circle for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry singing “Girl Goin’ Nowhere.” “I had this tip jar. I would look at these one-dollar bills, like ‘this one dollar bill was a moment for somebody,’” she shared in the video, reflecting on her days performing in honky tonks. “So the nights where you go ‘what am I even doing this for?’ Just go count your moments in the tip jar.” The inspiring video was followed by an emotional McBryde who kept her speech short and sweet, thanking her team for helping her reach these new heights. “Anytime somebody acknowledges how hard you busted your ass, we all our busted our ass this year,” she said tearfully, earning one of the many standing ovations of the night.
“I love country music, but I love y’all”
Between her timeless music catalogue and monumental impact on country music, McEntire defines Artist of a Lifetime. She was on hand to accept the night’s top honor, with Lady Antebellum serenading the room with a cover of “Is There Life Out There” as photos of McEntire’s illustrious career flashed across the screen, posing with the likes of Dolly Parton, Underwood and Shania Twain, along with a new generation of stars including Maddie & Tae and Raelynn, showing the wide impact she’s made not only on the genre, but women in country music.
Introduced by longtime friend Vince Gill, who cited her as “the friend I could always count on,” McEntire encompassed her career in two words: learning and friendship. “This has been a very inspirational, emotional night,” McEntire began as she accepted the honor, acknowledging the people who mentored her in the early days of her career. “That’s what this business is all about, the people we get to learn from, but get to know. I’m very blessed to have so many friends,” she said sincerely, also giving a shout out to Rhett, saying it “took guts” for him to integrate a prayer into an awards show. “I love this business, I love country music, it’s fun, I love the competition. But I love y’all, “ she concluded to cheers and a standing ovation.