Every moment of the 2017 CMT Artists of the Year on Wednesday (Oct. 18) in Nashville was dedicated to the spiritual connection country musicians have with their fans and the mutual admiration each honoree had for one another.
As a night of unity, hope and healing following the devastating natural disasters that rocked North America and the tragedy at the Route 91 Harvest music festival this fall, the eighth annual award show will forever be remembered as one of the most meaningful nights of music in the network's history.
For the show's opening number, Little Big Town provided a heavenly chorus for Andra Day on Day's "Rise Up."
Then each 2017 honoree, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban each participated in a heartfelt opening monologue in tribute to the unrelenting support of music fans everywhere.
Next, new American Idol judge Lionel Richie appeared onstage to honor his friend fellow Idol judge Bryan. Richie joked he is always trying to get him to go "Huntin' Fishin', and Lovin' Every Day."
"But not in my Gucci shoes," Richie said. "I can't think of a better person to join me as the judge on American Idol this year, and I can't think of a more deserving artist in country music to be one of the CMT Artists of the Year for the sixth time."
"I'm literally not good at sitting still, even when I'm home," Bryan said in a pre-taped video. "I've learned to get out there and enjoy each day and never take a day for granted. When I'm onstage 99 percent times out of 100 I'm genuinely having more fun than anybody in the room."
Aldean agreed with his friend Bryan's statement. "When you come to one of his shows," Aldean said in a video honoring Bryan, "you know that you're getting ready to cut loose and have fun and know that it's going to be an 'anything goes' kind of night."
Then Bryan was given the floor to perform "Fast," one of his 17 career No. 1s on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. Bryan attended the annual event with his wife Caroline.
Sam Hunt could not be present to hear Bobby Bones' kind words about his 2017 runaway smash "Body Like a Back Road." Hunt was on tour closing his wildly successful 15 in a 30 Tour in Hawaii. "Body Like a Back Road" was co-written with Zac Crowell, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne.
"My favorite interactions are the ones when I meet a fan and I'm able to see that this music has genuinely brought some sort of value to their lives," Hunt said in a pre-taped video. "I know how much music has meant to me to my life as a fan and so I can appreciate being able to do that for somebody else."
Urban compared writing a song like "Back Road" to catching lightning in a bottle. "It's one of those songs that so many songwriters kind of go, 'Ah, I could have written that,'" he said in a video. "Yeah, but you didn't because they're really hard to write."
A massive band including big horn section backed Idol champion Phillip Phillips on his version of "Body Like a Back Road."
Brothers Osborne's T.J. and John Osborne were charged with honoring their friend and All-American Road Show tour mate Stapleton. John Osborne summed up Stapleton's talents bluntly when he said, "He's [expletive] awesome."
"Fans have given me and my family so much," Stapleton said in a pre-taped video, "and if I have some small ability to help somebody somewhere that needs something and if that means making somebody forget about their troubles for three minutes of a song, great, that's the most important work that we get to do."
Stapleton and his wife Morgane then brought down the house with an uplifting performance of "Broken Halos," a song he usually dedicates to victims of Route 91 and all Americans suffering in the wake of the country's recent natural disasters.
Amy Grant presented a moving video tribute honoring members of the country family who passed in 2017. Included in the eulogy were the late Gregg Allman, Don Williams, Troy Gentry, Tom Petty, Glen Campbell and names of the 58 people who were killed by gunfire at Route 91.
Grant's husband and multi-Grammy winner Vince Gill, appeared onstage next to honor Urban, an artist Gill considers a little brother. "And who wouldn't want Keith Urban as your little brother," Gill quipped. "How cool would it be if you're sitting at home and Keith Urban brings Nicole Kidman to the house? But what I admire most about my friend is he has a heart that is always willing to help you out and lend a hand. And that's the mark of a great man."
"We have the best fans in the world," Urban said of country music in a video. "The festivals we play at, everybody travels so far to come and be part of days and nights of music. The energy they give us onstage every night and I always tell them that. It's what makes our show work is the fuel that we burn off for the whole time we're onstage everything we get from the fans is just the best. Without you guys, it's just one long sound check."
Urban then premiered a new jazz arrangement of "Blue Ain't Your Color."
Backstreet Boys had a mini CMT Crossroads reunion with Florida Georgia Line's Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard during the show. Backstreet Boy AJ McLean called the Crossroads performance one of his favorite all-time experiences onstage.
"Simply put, we're family now" Kevin Richardson added, "And it is an honor to recognize our brothers with their fifth CMT Artist of the Year trophy."
"They've found the balance between the rock of Saturday night and the repentant Sunday morning," Urban in a video recognizing FGL's success. "They personify that. I particularly love what they've done with the last album."
"They're not scared to push the boundaries and try to still keep it country music," Aldean added of FGL's music. "It opens the rest of the world's eyes to what we're doing over here."
"From what we've learned from the country music fans man over the years they're just as loyal as it gets," Brian Kelley said of their supporters. "They stick with you and they want to grow with you. And they're in for life. It motivates us to continue to push the boundaries and give them even better songs."
Hubbard and Kelley watched from the audience as Richardson played piano, backing his Backstreet Boys band mates on the FGL hit "H.O.L.Y."
Bryan honored his friend and fellow Georgia native Aldean. "His career has been defined by tour after tour of sold-out stadium shows and album after album of No. 1 songs," Bryan said. "Heck, he's even had three of them just this year alone. You've seen it in the past couple of weeks and you will continue to see it for as long as he wants to keep on doing what his fans love him doing."
"Jason's voice, that's been one of my favorite voices ever since the very first time I heard him sing," Urban said of Aldean in a pre-taped video. "It's your lifestyle and everything you are as a person, and what you stand for and what you live comes out in that voice."
"I think it is a really cool thing to be able to interact with your fans and sort of allow them to see a side of your life that they don't really get a chance to see," Aldean said in a video. "I'm very thankful. So as long as people are showing up and still want to hear my songs and come see us live, I'll be here as long as they want to do that."
Aldean then closed the show with a powerful rendition of Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down" with Urban, Little Big Town and Stapleton.
The night included additional video messages from some of the genre's biggest stars supporting CMT's charity initiative CMT One Country and its efforts to support victims of natural disasters that rocked the nation and the violence at Route 91 this fall.