Fans who tuned in to CMT’s Artists of the Year awards show Wednesday night expecting to get a glitzy night of songs and celebrities got something more: a glimpse of the heart that’s at the center of Nashville’s country community.
It arrived with a punch when Kane Brown took the stage just five days after the death of Kenny Dixon, his band’s drummer, who was killed in a one-car accident.
Brown was among the evening’s five artist of the year recipients — and he was scheduled to perform — but no one would have blamed him if he had passed up the event. In fact, when Chris Young began his introduction, it sounded like he was there to offer Brown’s regrets.
“As you guys know, it’s been a bit of a rough time for him,” Young told the packed house at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center. “Understandably, a lot of us can’t even imagine what he’s going through.”
But then Young pivoted and introduced Brown, who emerged from a darkened entryway to deafening applause. The 25-year-old artist mounted the stage, took the award from Young, and then stood silently at the microphone, fidgeting with the trophy, trying to collect himself.
“Thank y’all so much,” he finally began, his voice breaking. He stopped to pinch tears from his eyes, then began again: “I want to dedicate this to my drummer, Kenny.”
Haltingly, Brown told how Dixon was with him from his career beginnings in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when “people didn’t think we would make it.”
“He was so supportive of me,” Brown said, weeping, “and I love you, man. I miss you. The band misses you.”
He finished by thanking all who’ve “helped me get where I’m at,” expressing his love for the country community, and making the brief, poignant plea: “Y’all stay safe.” Then, to more rousing applause, he quickly exited the concert hall.
Young retook the stage, but not to sing any tribute to Brown. Instead, to honor Dixon, the singer stirred the audience with his new single, “Drowning,” which he explained he co-wrote in memory of one of his best friends, who also had died in a car accident.
More performers and awards presentations followed. Ashley McBride, recipient of CMT’s breakout artist of the year, torched the stage with a raw, throbbing delivery of new single “One Night Standards.” Carrie Underwood, another artist of the year recipient, performed two of her signature hits, “Two Black Cadillacs” and “Blown Away,” remotely from her concert in Cleveland.
But the emotional charge from Brown’s grief and Young’s tribute was still hanging heavily over the evening when Lauren Akins, six months’ pregnant, introduced her husband, Thomas Rhett, another artist of the year recipient, and the song he was about to perform, “Dream You Never Had.” A deep cut on Thomas Rhett’s album, Center Point Road, it addresses the sacrifice that his wife has made for his career.
“I think it’s something that resonates with everybody who supports the ones that they love,” Akins said.
It was a perfect fit for the mood, and when Thomas Rhett finished, he accepted the trophy from his wife with a hug and a kiss. But then he quickly bypassed the expected thanks and spoke instead of Brown’s loss. And then he simply asked, “Can I pray really fast? Is that okay with everybody?”
Heads bowed as Thomas Rhett lifted up Brown, Dixon and their families: “Bring them peace that only you know how to bring somebody.”
Who could recall an impromptu prayer ever occurring on a televised awards show? Yet the unexpected gesture rested soothingly on this audience, drawn mostly from a music community where everybody seems to know everybody — or at least deeply understands the magnitude of this loss.
Vince Gill brought that message home when he introduced the final honoree of the evening, Reba McEntire, who accepted CMT’s artist of a lifetime award. He didn’t have to specify that McEntire had lost seven of her band members and her tour manager in a 1991 plane crash. He didn’t have to because surely everyone in the room knew.
“Reba and I have been friends for 40 years,” Gill said, spurning the teleprompter. “As friends, we’ve gone through divorces together. We’ve gone through the deaths of the members of our family. We’ve gone through the deaths of the members of our road family. We’ve shared it all, and when the chips were down, that was the friend right there I could always count on.”
Clearly touched by his words, McEntire took the stage on an emotional wave, and after she thanked the musical mentors who showed her the ropes, the country queen turned to Thomas Rhett. “God bless you for praying,” she said. “You’re special … That took guts.” She stopped to wipe away a tear. “That’s what we need in our life, a little more God.”
The evening ended on a preternatural high as Sam Hunt appeared on stage to perform a wildly gender-bending rendition of McEntire’s hit, “Fancy.” If it’s anything, Nashville is a creative community, and no one seemed to care that Hunt was singing the part of a high-end prostitute, let alone toying with a classic. McEntire leapt to her feet — along with everyone else — at the song’s end.
Other CMT artists of the year included Dan + Shay, who reprised their career-defining hit “Tequila” to start the evening, and Luke Combs, who accepted his trophy via video; he was in concert in Bozeman, Montana. Chrissy Metz, star of the NBC drama “This Is Us,” sang Combs’ new single, “Even Though I’m Leaving,” in tribute.
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