The 2015 CMT Artists of the Year ceremony provided a time to celebrate life, friendships and music when Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line, Little Big Town, Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt were honored Wednesday night (Dec. 2) in Nashville.
Kenny Rogers, Chris Stapleton and the cast of ABC’s Nashville were also honored, but perhaps the warmest moments involved a moment of sorrow for Little Big Town and, on the other side of the spectrum, some comical jousting between Shelton and Bryan.
In accepting their Artist of the Year award, Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman and Phillip Sweet noted the absence of bandmates Jimi Westbrook and wife Karen Fairchild following the death of Westbrook’s sister, Joyce Marie Westbrook Morgan.
“We’ve been a band for a long time,” Schlapman said. “Family has always been most important to us, and tonight, Karen and Jimi’s family are going through some of their very darkest days. Jimi’s sister passed away from cancer three days ago. They’re with their family, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We so glad they’re there.
“Tonight when we think about Joyce … we think about her spirit and her love and her gorgeous smile and her incredible personality and the fight she gave that horrible disease.” Raising the CMT trophy, she added, “Tonight, Joyce, this is for you.”
British vocalist Leona Lewis and former American Idol finalist Adam Lambert offered an inspired and soulful take on Little Big Town’s hit, “Girl Crush.”
And then there was the usual humor involving Shelton. As usual, he proved he can dish it out and take it, too.
Longtime friend Trace Adkins set the tone early on in presenting the Artist of the Year award to Shelton.
“There’s not a whole lot this guy can’t do — other than keep his love life private,” Adkins said, referring to Shelton’s divorce from Miranda Lambert and a subsequent, well-publicized relationship with rock singer Gwen Stefani.
In a more serious tone, Adkins added, “Blake Shelton’s a man who knows how to handle a country song. He’s a man who knows how to handle a chain saw. He’s a huge star, and I think my favorite thing about him is the fact that he has no idea that he’s a big star.”
When Shelton walked onstage, he quickly planted a kiss on Adkins’ cheek.
“He doesn’t act that way when we’re by ourselves and I kiss him,” Shelton joked.
Shelton was a first-time CMT Artists of the Year honoree.
“This is awesome,” he said as he held the trophy. “I haven’t gotten one of these from CMT before, and I’ve been jealous over the last few years, so I’m glad to be in the pack.”
Shelton alluded to his high media profile from his personal life and a strong presence on NBC’s The Voice.
“This has been a crazy year from the way it started to how it’s ending so awesome for me,” he said. “So thank ya’ll. This is a great way to end the year for me.”
As expected, another humorous exchange ensued later in the show when Shelton presented the Artist of the Year award to Luke Bryan. In introducing Bryan’s performance of “Kick the Dust Up,” Shelton held an unlit candle from a fragrance line his friend has endorsed with his name and photo.
After the performance, Shelton was holding the candle to his nose.
“The whole time, I just kept thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to get me some of these candles,'” he said. “They smell exactly like Luke. It’s like vanilla with a hint of deer urine.”
When he arrived to accept the trophy, Bryan took a verbal jab.
“The candle?” he said. “You roast me on the candle?”
“It’s pretty stupid,” Shelton responded.
“It’s vanilla bourbon, Blake, not deer urine,” Bryan said. “I’m pretty sure ‘deer urine’ has never been said at an awards show.”
“I never thought ‘Luke Bryan’ would ever be said at an awards show,” Shelton quipped.
When the laughter ended, Bryan offered his thoughts about his latest award.
“It’s always an amazing night here. It feels like this always wraps up the year, and I’ve been honored for the past few years to be asked to be a part of this,” he said. “Everything that’s happened to me is simply coming from up above.
“I look back at being onstage and staring at all the fans who have dedicated so much to come to shows and all the people who work behind the scenes. That’s what I think about on nights like this.”
Singer-songwriter Thomas Rhett honored Florida Georgia Line with a performance of the duo’s hit single, “Dirt.”
FGL’s Brian Kelley accepted the award on behalf of musical partner Tyler Hubbard, who was unable to attend Wednesday’s event.
“My heart is pounding, man,” Kelley said. “I know if Tyler was here right next to me right now, his heart would be pounding, too.
“He’s at home. … His wife and him are heading to Africa in January to do some charitable work, and he had had a bad reaction to some shots. He’s a little under the weather. Not feeling well at all.”
After thanking Rhett for his performance, Kelley talked about the evolution he’s seeing in country music.
“It’s cool what’s going on in the music industry,” he said. “Chris Stapleton, props to you, brother. Got to shout you out, man. Love what’s going on. Love that we can all have a chance to have a say, have a voice. Let’s push this thing forward. Let’s be positive. Good vibes only.”
Lee Ann Womack presented the Breakthrough Artist of the Year award to Stapleton. Last month, the Kentucky native enjoyed a major career boost after winning in three categories at the CMA Awards.
“I want say thank you to Nashville,” Stapleton told the crowd Wednesday. “Nashville, Tennessee, has been so good to me. Thank you, CMT, and thank you to everybody who supported me up to the CMA thing and everybody’s who’s doing it now.”
Stapleton and his wife Morgane performed “Nobody to Blame,” a song from his Traveller album, with a small band that included Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player.
Veteran TV newsman Dan Rather introduced Kenny Rogers as the recipient of the Artist of a Lifetime award presented by Ram Trucks. Rather began by noting that few artists ever completely change the landscape of an entire genre.
“Kenny Rogers did just that,” he said. “Kenny Rogers was one of the first-ever crossover artists. He’s a television star, and he’s been a major presence across all media for 40 years. … Kenny Rogers is an icon. He’s a patriarch of the entire country music family. He’s a great friend to many, and he’s an inspiration to us all.”
Rogers, who is planning to retire from touring, offered a bit of wisdom to the younger acts attending the awards ceremony.
“This all started with me when I was 12 years old and I went to see Ray Charles,” he said. “I went home and I told my mom, ‘That’s what I want to do.’
“So all of you guys, when you go on a stage, just know that there’s a 10, 11 or 12-year-old boy or girl saying the same thing to their parents. You can change the world.”
Nashville actress Connie Britton accepted the International Impact Award on behalf of the entire cast of the hit ABC series.
“We’re just so honored and thrilled to be accepting this award tonight from CMT,” she said. “It’s been such a privilege to come to Nashville and to be able present the magic of this town to our audience and to share the great music that has made the Mecca for music lovers all over the world. We share this award with the great songwriters we get to work with … with the great musicians we get to work with. You make it possible for us to do what we do.”
Newcomer Sam Hunt closed the show with his No. 1 hit, “House Party.” Although he has a reputation for modernizing country music, he quoted a classic country singer while accepting his Artist of the Year award.
“The last couple of days, I’ve had this line from a Randy Travis song stuck in my head: ‘It’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you, but what you leave behind you when you’re gone.’
“I’ve been thinking about some of the cool things we’ve been able to accomplish over this past year. It reminds me that it’s not about me and my accomplishments, but what I do with them. This music thing, it’s going to go away at some point. Maybe a year from now, maybe five years from now. If I’m lucky, longer than that.
“Hopefully, when it does, I will have brought something of value to people’s lives. I’m grateful for this award because it gives me an opportunity to do that.”