A historic night of country music was finished off with a once-retired superstar grabbing the biggest award at the 50th anniversary CMA Awards in Nashville.
Garth Brooks, who restarted his career after a very public and tear-stained retirement back in October of 2000, became country music’s “comeback kid” Wednesday night (Nov. 2) when he was crowned entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association.
“Very sweet,” said Brooks, looking at the award. “Wow. It’s cool.”
Brooks’ honor was presented by Taylor Swift a few minutes after Dolly Parton received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. (She allowed it was a “high” honor and that Willie had plenty of “highs” in his career.)
“I would've cried, but I didn’t want to mess up my eyelashes,” said Parton, speaking of the women who been inspired by her who sang a medley of a few of her hits.
From Kacey Musgraves to Jennifer Nettles to Reba McEntire to Carrie Underwood to Martina McBride, the women finished the medley by singing, in harmony, “I Will Always Love You,” with the song’s exclamation punctuated by McEntire pointing straight at Parton.
Even though Parton’s seat in the audience was plenty close -- almost all the legends sat in the front during this golden anniversary event -- it took a helping hand by her friend Vince Gill, who sat next to her, to get her -- tight dress, heels and all -- up onto the stage to accept the honor, thanking everyone for “making my little girl dreams come true.”
Parton was well-prepared for the honor, but the show, running long, didn’t give her time to say all she wanted to say.
“I had a big speech, but they won’t let me give it,” she said, in good humor, as the show already had pushed past its allotted three hours by the time it got to her tribute.
The next man up on the stage, though, male vocalist of the year Chris Stapleton, a soft-spoken fellow, looked to the stage wings and said, “If Dolly was still back there, I’d give her my time.”
Stapleton’s down-home appeal perhaps was best shown when someone in the upper reaches of the Bridgestone Arena hollered out that he loved the singer. “I love you, too, sir," he responded.
The tributes, photographic displays and archival footage throughout the night included the likes of Jeannie C. Riley singing a bit of “Harper Valley PTA” and Glen Campbell singing a snippet of “Gentle on My Mind.” They and the other pioneers were kept in the forefront all evening.
The historic celebration actually began before the show, when, pressed on the red carpet for any details about the rumored big opening number, Charlie Daniels -- fresh off his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame -- told local reporters not to miss the first few minutes of the show.
And opening segment of the show was loaded with stars singing some of their own classics as well as others singing in place of those who are gone.
For starters, after an archival cut of Minnie Pearl with Parton from a CMA show long in the past, there came a snippet of Tennessee Ernie Ford introducing a triumphant Merle Haggard to the awards stage.
That tender moment, in which Haggard -- who died in April -- called out the names of some of his own heroes, was followed by CMA good guy Gill singing Haggard’s signature tune, “Mama Tried,” with the late singer’s youngest son, Ben, accompanying on guitar.
Then, in rapid succession, artists began their segments of the classics, with included co-host Brad Paisley doing his best Buck Owens to Roy Clark’s Hee-Haw-worthy take on the late Owens’ “I've Got a Tiger by the Tail.”
Surely one for some future time capsule was when co-hosts Paisley and Underwood sang “Forever and Ever, Amen” -- with that song’s creator, Randy Travis, standing between them, holding a microphone.
Health woes have crippled Travis, who also was a new Hall of Fame inductee, but he clearly enjoyed hearing his song and then even added a long “Amen” to finish it off.
The most surprised winner of the night may have been Brothers Osborne after ending Florida Georgia Line's three-year reign as duo of the year.
""We sat behind Florida Georgia Line, and I thought for sure we were going to be congratulating them," TJ Osborne said.
John Osborne offered encouragement to others by saying, "If we can do it, you can do it."
How quickly stardom can come was highlighted by new artist of the year winner Maren Morris.
“Last year, I sat at a bar across the street and watched the show," she said, as she gazed out at the arena filled with her heroes.
Lori McKenna, was honored for writing the song of the year, “Humble and Kind,” a hit for Tim McGraw.
“Oh, good Lord, good Lord … I have a job in this town thanks to this man’s wife," she said, referring to Faith Hill. McGraw responded by embracing the songwriter.
When Eric Church accepted the honor for Mr. Misunderstood as album of the year, presenter Faith Hill stopped him to adjust his tie before he took the microphone.
“I’m not sure what’s better -- winning an award or Faith Hill fixing my tie,” he said, adding, “I think it was Faith Hill fixing my tie.”
Perhaps the truest emotion came when Underwood was honored as female vocalist of the year.
“I can’t believe I’m standing here in front of all these legends,” she said, looking out at the rows that included Loretta Lynn and many other country household names.
“I’ve suddenly turned stupid,” she said.
The flamboyant showman who was named entertainer of the year, perhaps summed up the entire evening of legends and legendary tributes best: “We are so damned lucky to be a part of this thing we call ‘country music.’”