This year's CMT Artists of the Year special was different than in years past. In light of recent tragedies – both manmade and natural – the producers shifted the night's theme from a celebration of 2017's biggest country stars to a night of hope and healing through the power of music, and the song choices reflected that.
From the opening number – the spirit-lifting gospel soul of Andra Day's "Rise Up," performed with Little Big Town – the night was punctuated by moving performances and a special message from the honorees themselves.
Airing live from Nashville's elegant Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban took the stage as a group early on, delivering prepared remarks directly to fans about the horror of the Las Vegas shooting, the hate in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the hurricanes and wildfires affecting huge swathes of the country.
"Music can be so powerful," Bryan began, "and we have never needed it more than we do right now. Music moves us, music brings us together, and tonight we hope music can be a part of the healing."
Stapleton spoke of the human spirit singers see from the stage each night, while FGL's Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard highlighted the character of country fans, always willing to lend a hand, open their wallets or even risk their lives for those in need. Urban thanked those fans for their resolve, and vowed that "everything we go through, we can get through when we stick together." And then Aldean delivered his speech.
"We've been tested against our worst nightmares these past few months – heartbroken doesn't even begin to explain how some of us feel," he said. The singer was onstage October 1st when assault rifle fire rang out at Las Vegas' Route 91 Harvest festival, killing 58 people and injury more than 500. "But we have proven time and again in this country that we have the power to overcome anything that threatens our way of life, or our freedom. We dedicate this night to you and to everyone who's experienced loss or tragedy in the last few months."
After a rousing standing ovation, the rest of the night settled in to a welcome semblance of normalcy – the controlled chaos of a live-TV taping. But underlying each joke from Lionel Richie ("Luke Bryan keeps trying to get me to go hunting and fishing. I told him the only hunting I do is for a new jacket at the store") and glossy video about an honoree's appeal, there was the knowledge that nights like these are not to be taken for granted.
Day and LBT returned to the stage, this time with Lee Ann Womack, Danielle Bradbery and rapper/actor/poet Common. Through Day's "Stand Up for Something," the ensemble asked those watching to stand up for each other, or else these tragedies will mean nothing.
Even the usually lighthearted Bryan found a way to offer a deeper message through his music. Ditching his suit jacket and taking the stage with his full band, he kicked off "Fast," which underscored the idea that each and every moment should be embraced.
Later on, Brothers Osborne took the live-TV opportunity to express their thoughts on why Stapleton was being honored ("Because he's fucking awesome," shouted John Osborne). Stapleton performed the devastating "Broken Halos," a lump-in-your-throat tribute to the angels who seem to leave us when their earthly work is done.
Before the show, Urban spoke on the red carpet about what the night meant to him and the secret, free concert he put together at Nashville's tiny club the Basement only two nights earlier.
"For me this night is all about acknowledging the people who allow us to do what we do," he told Rolling Stone Country. "Isolation is a very dangerous thing for human beings, it's not good for me and I want to be out amongst the people, especially at times like this. We aren't touring right now and I wanted that connection to the audience, so I said, 'Let's do a pub show.' It was nice to be playing music for music's sake."
Onstage at Artists of the Year, Urban transformed the sorrowful "Blue Ain't Your Color" with the help of a small jazz band, making it a message not just for a heartbroken lover but for all of America.
Likewise, Florida Georgia Line's "H.O.L.Y," delivered by FGL tourmates Backstreet Boys, took the crowd to church. "Music brings people together. It brings people joy, and we can't live in fear," the pop quintet's A.J. McLean said prior to the show.
But the night's finale was perhaps the most moving. The whole crowd waited patiently for Aldean's first Nashville performance since the shooting, and it was his longtime friend Bryan who introduced the star.
"It could have been any one of us standing on that stage in Las Vegas two weeks ago," Bryan said. "It's a nightmare nobody should have had to face. Jason Aldean has responded with dignity, care and respect, and in some ways defiance, and we are all proud."
As such, Aldean (who was celebrating his sixth time as a CMT Artist of the Year) didn't take the stage alone. Joined by Little Big Town, Stapleton and Urban, his performance tapped into that defiance for a fitting send-off to the night – a reprise of his surprise Saturday Night Live appearance less than a week after the tragedy. Together, the group, and the entire Symphony hall, who were now on their feet, sang the late Tom Petty's anthem of perseverance, "I Won't Back Down."