The 2021 CMT Artists of the Year ceremony was more than a star-studded affair honoring some of country music’s best, it was a demonstration of the power of music.
Following a virtual ceremony in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic where the focus shifted to honor frontline workers, the CMT Artists of the Year returned to its usual format in 2021, transforming the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville into a country music haven where Luke Combs, Kane Brown, Kelsea Ballerini, Gabby Barrett and Chris Stapleton were honored as the Artists of the Year, along with Mickey Guyton, who was named Breakout Artist of the Year, and Randy Travis who was bestowed with the coveted Artist of a Lifetime.
It was a night built on a foundation of powerful performances and moving speeches where the connection between the country music family was on full display. Here are 5 of the best moments from the 2021 CMT Artists of the Year.
“I made it my life’s purpose to show that country music really is everyone’s music.”
Preceding an inspiring speech filled with words of wisdom, Guyton blew the audience away with a stunning performance of “Remember Her Name” alongside Yola. The set opened with Guyton’s booming voice over an interlude of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” leading into the equally powerful “Remember Her Name,” a song about a young woman who is embodies resiliency and stands strong in the face of adversity. Yola’s earth-shattering vocals added even more dimension and grit to the song, the two singers embracing the unbreakable woman at the center of the narrative, the performance earning them a standing ovation.
Staying true to her honest and transparent self, Guyton continued to bare her soul upon accepting the award, reflecting on how she nearly gave up on her dreams until a pivotal conversation with her husband, Grant Savoy, encouraged her to stay the course and live authentically. It was impossible not to feel inspired by Guyton’s truthfulness, grace and poignancy as she spoke to the hearts of all country music fans, including the people who feel unseen — and even extending a selfless hand to those who attack her on social media.
“Three years ago, this was not even a possibility for me, and I’d completely given up on myself and my dream to sing a genre of music that I held so close to my heart,” Guyton expressed. “It changed my life and I made it my life’s purpose to show that country music really is everyone’s music. So to that seven-year-old little Black girl at home, that Indigenous boy, that LGBTQIA+ teen and that Latino boy or girl, and anyone marginalized or unseen, and yes, even the haters on social media, this is for you. I am here for you. I am my sister’s keeper.”
“It may have taken the voice, but it didn’t take the man and it didn’t take the heart.”
Travis could not have had a bigger advocate honor him as the Artist of a Lifetime than Garth Brooks. A loyal fan since Travis impacted the country scene in the 1980s, Brooks did not hold back in sharing how Travis’ timeless work has influenced him, and the genre at large.
“Randy Travis singlehandedly saved country music,” Brooks declared, earning a round of applause. “I wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for Randy Travis. I don’t think any of us would be. This is totally my opinion, it doesn’t have to be yours, but every artist in country music that takes the stage over the next 100 years should bow to this man and thank him for his contribution to the genre,” he raved, adding, “I love him.”
Brooks’ acclaim was followed by retrospective clips taken from the legend’s expansive career, including his induction into the Grand Ole Opry and snippets from videos of classics like “I Told You So,” “Diggin’ Up Bones” and “Three Wooden Crosses.” But it was a clip from his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016 when he miraculously sang “Amazing Grace” after experiencing a debilitating stroke that brought the room to a standstill, proving the undeniable power of music.
“It may have taken the voice, but it didn’t take the man and it didn’t take the heart. It didn’t take the music, we’ll have that forever and ever, amen,” Travis’ wife Mary Travis proclaimed when they took the stage, remarking on her husband’s perseverance. “You deserve every minute of it baby,” she said tearfully about his success. “You’ve put in a lot of hard work.” The tribute to Travis continued as fellow honoree and lifelong fan Brown performed a riveting rendition of “Three Wooden Crosses,” his earnest and engaging interpretation drawing the listener into the story while paying homage to Travis’ legacy, making for one of the best performances of the night.
Walker Hayes is “Fancy Like”
From stocking shelves at Costco to closing out the CMT Artists of the Year special, Walker Hayes proved the mass appeal of his viral hit “Fancy Like.” Hayes’ performance of the hit track (sponsored by Applebees, naturally) got the room on its feet, ending the show on a high note as famous peers like Brown could be seen serving as his hype man in the audience, while Barrett attempted the choreography from her seat and CMT Next Women of Country trio Chapel Hart were excitedly dancing throughout the number, Hayes leaving the crowd with a dose of feel good energy.
“You’re a real one.”
One of the most memorable performance of the show came from none other than Boyz II Men, who delivered a sincere rendition of honoree Stapleton’s “Cold,” marking the first time the song has been performed live. The group’s soulful harmonies where enough to send chills down one’s spine and got the whole crowd clapping along, including a delighted Stapleton and his wife Morgane Stapleton who could be seen enjoying the performance from their front row seats.
“What you’ve done for music, not just country music, is you let us all know that soul, good singing and a heart of gold onstage and off stage is still very much prevalent in 2021,” the group marveled of the Grammy winner. “You’re a real one.”
“I feel a lot of love in the room tonight.”
Stapleton offered pure humility and grace when he took the stage to accept the final award of the night. Presented to him by former Nashville star Connie Britton, who was in the room the first time Stapleton was honored as a CMT Artist of the Year in 2015, the “Broken Halos” singer noted that while he’s received the accolade in the past, this one was particularly special in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that kept the world in a state of isolation and musicians like him off the road for a year.
His speech was one of gratitude, demonstrating the genuine nature that makes him a beloved superstar and a worthy representative of country music.
“This show is different tonight,” he observed, sharing how it was among the first times he’s been in a room with people since the onset of the pandemic. “I feel a lot of love in the room tonight. So inspiring to listen to your performances, to hear your words and your stories, and I’m humbled to be in the room with you folks that I’m here with tonight. I’m grateful to play music,” he vowed, capturing not only the spirit of the event, but the power of music and its ability to change lives.
“This is meaningful. I’m so grateful to the fans, I’m so grateful to CMT, I’m so grateful to my wife and my children and all of my family who’s supported me through all these things. But tonight, it’s really special, and I’m so grateful to get to do this.”