It was an emotional evening at this year's CMT Artists of the Year ceremony, which brought some of the hardest-hitting road warriors and chart-toppers in country music – including Chris Stapleton, Florida Georgia Line, Keith Urban, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean – to Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
Launched in 2010 to honor the genre's busiest musicians, the 2017 Artists of the Year event served something of a different purpose, shining a light on the communal ties and support systems shared between country stars, their contemporaries and their fans. It was also the first awards show since the catastrophic shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival earlier this month in Las Vegas, in which 58 fans lost their lives. Broadcast live on Wednesday night, CMT's well-balanced show was heartfelt and often teary, full of one-off collaborations and sing-alongs.
In the closing number, Aldean (who was onstage in Las Vegas as the tragedy unfolded) performed "I Won't Back Down" by the late Tom Petty. The country singer tackled the same song on Saturday Night Live 11 days earlier, but the Artists of the Year version is different, with coed harmonies provided by Little Big Town and dual guitar leads from Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban. It's a raw, ragged performance, with Stapleton and Urban each taking a verse. The cumulative effect, however, is powerful and poignant – a group of friends banding together, supporting their rattled community and saluting a songwriter in Petty whose work influenced many of today's country artists.