Set to be an elegant night in the gorgeous Schermerhorn Symphony Center located in downtown Nashville, the honored country stars were keeping the fans in mind when it came to accept their awards at the 2016 CMT Artists of the Year celebration.
The artists being recognized for the night included Luke Bryan, Thomas Rhett, Carrie Underwood, Chris Stapleton and Florida Georgia Line, with a special nod to Kelsea Ballerini as New Artist of the Year and Shania Twain for her Artist of a Lifetime Achievement. All of the artists together have boasted 65 No. 1 radio hits and come into the country game with a grand total of 12 million fans split between them respectively.
Kicking off the show with their ever-present high energy performance, Florida Georgia Line got the crowd to bop their heads along to their current radio single, “May We All.” The duo worked the crowd despite their collaboration buddy on the track, Tim McGraw, being there and received a huge welcoming from the classy crowd.
Charles Esten, from the CMT drama, Nashville, was on hand to give Florida Georgia Line the award as he reminisced the first time meeting the guys on the set of the show. Noting the friendship between the actor himself and the duo as well as their success with the booming party hits, Esten presented Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard with their trophies.
Hubbard thanked the Lord, wife and family for all of their success in country music and Kelley made a point to thank the fans for allowing them to write music and travel for a living.
After Florida Georgia Line brought the party, Stapleton dialed down the energy to a sweet solace throughout the symphony venue. His signature vocals crooned through the awe-inspired silence as he hit all of the right notes that just chill the spine. With the entire room intently listening to the calming, raspy tone of Stapleton during his solo acoustic performance of “Whiskey and You,” one could get goosebumps over his beautifully rock tone that filled every breath within the room. Receiving a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience, Stapleton was greeted by the likes of Bryan (sling free) to present him with the honor.
Bryan talked about how Stapleton came at the right time, when fans were ready to listen to what he had to say and sing on his album, Traveller. Stapleton thanked his wife and his crew for working so hard to allow him to do what he does, and how much of a treat it is to play music.
Switching it up, Arsenio Hall took the stage to present his “baby sister” Ballerini to the audience as the New Artist of the Year. Ballerini then performed her mega-hit “Peter Pan” for the devoted crowd in a gorgeous blue sequined mini. After stating through a video that she sticks to being a fan of country music first rather than an artist, the country cutie showed her gratitude for the women in the genre that she constantly finds herself inspired by. Getting nervous with a couple hiccups popping out, Ballerini lastly dedicated the award to her grandfather, who passed away earlier that afternoon, she revealed.
Bryan was lined up next as he and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild belted out their duet, “Home Alone Tonight.” Their chemistry as artists was unmatched, quite like their overlapping harmonies that seemed to melt with one another.
Little Big Town then presented the trophy to Bryan, but not before making a couple jabs at his recent tour incident. While handing him the award, they also unveiled a kids’ red bicycle with training wheels and advised Bryan that he should probably start learning to ride a bike on a smaller level.
The country star then divulged his love for LBT and their close relationship after hitting the road with one another. As many people could assume, Bryan stated how much of a family the entire country community is with one another and how lucky he is to be a part of that much love.
Girl power quickly took over the room as Olympic gymnasts Aly Raisman and Madison Kocian introduced Underwood to perform alongside the ultimate girl squad in Nashville—Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey. Slowing thing down a bit, the ladies harmonized to the track, “Like I’ll Never Love You Again,” before Underwood accepted her trophy.
Getting choked up over the sight of her son, Isaiah, on the introductory montage video, Underwood tearfully gave love to her husband and to CMT for supporting her all this time. She also thanked God for the good life she’s been given and for making country music a thing in her life.
As Rhett took the stage for his performance, he was joined by international pop superstar, Zara Larsson, to sing a collaboration of his romantic ballad, “Die a Happy Man,” and her dance-infused hit, “Never Forget You.” Taking a jazzier approach to both singles, the big band made for big vocals from the both of them as they tangled their voices around each song respectively.
Florida Georgia Line handed Rhett his honor and he returned the favor by calling Kelley and Hubbard his best friends. He also gave a shout-out to all of the other artists at the event that night as he admitted that they all shaped his music career in some way or form.
The biggest accolade of the night, Artist of a Lifetime, was granted to none other than country queen Shania Twain. In a cute montage video of some of her hits as well as the other honored artists talking about her power on country music, it was clear that Twain has played a major factor into modern-day country music. While Ballerini called her, “the coolest chick in the whole world,” Kelley couldn’t help but channel his falsetto head voice to bust out his version of “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?”
To celebrate her ferocious career in the format, a medley of three hits from her catalogue was performed by the likes of Meghan Trainor, Ballerini and Jill Scott. Trainor took on the loving track, “You’re Still the One,” before Ballerini threw in some sass by singing “Any Man of Mine.” But it was Scott who took the venue to church with her bold rendition of “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”
Underwood then graciously awarded Twain with her trophy, throwing in a couple ‘we are not worthy’ bows. Twain concluded that music was absolutely her best friend because it has never judged her and was always there for at any time. Admitting that she has been entertaining for 44 years of her life, she thanked CMT for being the “parent” that carried her career on to the next level. Soaking in every second of that stage, Twain ultimately ended the night with an optimistic view that could resonate with not only every artist, but every person in that crowd: by hoping that music will always carry on.
Tune in to the 2016 CMT Artists of the Year to see even more of the eventful evening, airing tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CMT. The special will also re-air on CMT Thursday, Oct. 20 at 11 p.m. ET/PT, Friday, Oct. 21 at 9:30 a.m. ET/PT, Saturday, Oct. 22 at 6 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. ET/PT, and Sunday, Oct. 23 at 12 p.m. ET/PT.