Editor's note: CMT Artists of the Year premieres Friday (Dec. 3) at 8 p.m. ET.
Surrounded by friends and famous admirers, Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and the Zac Brown Band enjoyed a celebratory evening at the CMT Artists of the Year taping on Tuesday night (Nov. 30) in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tenn.
All five artists watched from their tables at the gala event while fellow musicians like Luke Bryan, Kid Rock, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis and Motown legend Smokey Robinson sang their praises. Oscar winner Kevin Costner hosted the 90-minute special with insightful anecdotes and a casual directive to relax and savor the evening.
During the show, Underwood was on the verge of tears as she addressed the intimate industry crowd, telling them she dreamed of a singing career as a child. Swift stood and sang along when Maroon 5 offered a surprisingly speedy version of her latest hit, "Mine." Aldean partnered with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry for a rousing version of "My Kinda Party," one of Aldean's biggest hits this year. Later, Bryan and McEntire elaborated on their fondness for Lady Antebellum, while British pop star Adele and Darius Rucker collaborated on a unique version of the trio's "Need You Now." Subdued soul singer Amos Lee teamed with the Zac Brown Band for a heartfelt rendition of "Colder Weather."
The special night captured a wide variety of emotions, but many of the most touching moments came when the presenters went off-script to directly convey to the artists how they felt about their music, giving an informal feel to the show despite the elegant surroundings. Many times, the cameras caught candid moments with the artists who were specifically honored for their success in 2010 as tallied by record sales, radio airplay and online popularity at CMT.com.
In his speech, Aldean expressed his gratitude to his wife and parents for their unwavering support. Laughing that he doesn't get to accept awards very often, Aldean made a point to thank his producer and longtime supporter Michael Knox. He also emphasized his fan support, saying, "That's why we do it -- for you guys. You make it worth it, and thanks for coming to the show." He closed his speech by offering kind words for his two daughters.
Costner joked about Swift's productivity, telling the audience she may have written a song during the commercial break, but he emphasized she's "as real as it gets." He also told the audience her music transcends the young female audience and that she always manages to capture the catchiest hooks in her music. Paramore's Hayley Williams talked about her budding friendship with Swift and making a living doing what they love -- "playing over loud guitars." Williams also described Swift as "clever, honest and one of the best storytellers I know."
At the podium, Swift excitedly said, "First, I want to thank Maroon 5 for coming out and taking on such a wordy, girly song. I know you had to change so many of the pronouns in that song to make it work." She also spoke about her love of traveling, touring and the fact that she considers her fans as her friends because they often tell her about their breakups in the meet-and-greet line at her concerts.
Robinson, a true icon among singer-songwriters, told the crowd that Underwood first impressed him when she appeared on the audition episode of American Idol. He also said he's often asked by interviewers if there are any promising young artists who will have long careers. He then noted, "I say to all skeptics, if you don't know about these young people who are being honored here this evening, you're asleep on the job." Underwood underscored Robinson's endorsement with a medley of three of her biggest hits from the year, hinting at the experience of catching her on tour.
Kid Rock told the audience he became a "groupie" immediately upon hearing the Zac Brown Band's album, The Foundation. "It blew my mind," he said, noting that song after song reeled him in. "Wow, a band that plays together, writes together and sings together -- and their hearts are all about music," he added. "I became their biggest groupie. When I say 'groupie,' I mean that in a good way. Their music inspires me. And as a songwriter and singer here, we all know that we desperately seek for inspiration, especially when you get successful. And watching these guys play, night after night, listening to their music, it took me to a place to make me want to be a better songwriter, a better singer, a better performer. No question about it."
After praise from McBride, Lady Antebellum took their moment in the spotlight. Group member Hillary Scott said, "I think this year has been one that we will never forget, and we just feel so thankful and so honored to be in this room," adding that they consider all their fellow honorees as their friends. Dave Haywood told the audience the trio's latest songwriting sessions remind him of the beginning of their career and the camaraderie they share. With tears in his eyes and his bandmates by his side, he noted, "This night has been overwhelming for us."
View photos from the red carpet.
View photos from the taping of the CMT Artist of the Year special.
View photos of the CMT Artist of the Year trophy.