Merle Haggard, Wiz Khalifa and Chris Cornell walk into a Nashville symphony hall — though that sounds like it could have been the basis for one of host Larry the Cable guy's off-color jokes, it was actually just a snippet of the lineup from last night's CMT Artists of the Year broadcast. The event honored Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban for their banner years and copious Number Ones — over 50 in total among them. Haggard also took home the first-ever Artist of a Lifetime honor.
So what was the punch line? Well, not much — a good portion of the evening took on a fairly reverential tone, partly due to the absence of honoree Bryan, who was unable to attend due to the recent death of his brother-in-law. Cornell's presence was certainly no joke but definitely a mystery — though he lent his backing vocals and guitar to Aldean's opening performance of "Just Gettin' Started," he was mostly a tease for an audience eager for a few moments of unleashed Soungarden-era howl. Even Urban, who greeted Cornell with a big hug, admitted he was hoping for a spontaneous rendition of "Black Hole Sun."
"Anytime you get recognized by anybody, that's a cool thing," Aldean told reporters before the show began. "CMT is such a big part of country music. It's really cool to be a part of anything where you are recognized by your industry." Kenny Chesney, with his signature hat casting a superhero-esque shadow over his eyes, presented the singer with his award and noted that the two would be embarking on a series of joint stadium shows in the summer.
"I think I look like Johnny Cash with an eating disorder," Larry the Cable guy told the chuckling audience gathered at the Schermerhorn Center, whose symphony-designed acoustics lifted the performances up into the boxes where screaming fans dangled over round tables of executives sipping red wine. Lambert, in a short white dress, offered a version of her Platinum ballad "Holding on to You" before accepting her award. In a contrast from her recent CMA performance with Megan Trainor that was all fire and sass, this was a restrained, subtle delivery with a Motown-meets-Patsy Cline spin. Watch the performance below.
The strongest performance of the night came in its most somber moment. Lady Antebellum and Chris Stapleton took the stage to sing Bryan's emotional hit "Drink a Beer" in his honor — and through brief snippets, Stapleton's guttural, bluesy growl took over the song he co-wrote for the superstar and squeezed both tears and a standing ovation from the crowd.
Leave it to Florida Georgia Line to lighten the mood — as they are often wont to do — with Brian Kelley in a tight Haggard T-shirt dancing in circles around Tyler Hubbard as they sang their reggae-twanged spring-breaker "Sun Daze," treating the hall like it was a beachside bonfire and singing to the very top pews. Their friend Khalifa presented the duo with their award, and though they sing about "lacing J's" and getting stoned, neither Kelley nor Hubbard would cop to any post-party plans with the marijuana-advocating, copiously tattooed rapper. "When Wiz Khalifa is in town, it will always be fun," Kelley told Rolling Stone Country prior to the show. "That's all I'm going to say."
Cornell — somehow the night's most omnipresent face — then took the stage again, introducing Urban (or "Nicole Kidman's husband," as Larry the Cable Guy put it), who performed the James Brown classic "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" with the aid of an all-female backing band, including a string section made up of students from local Belmont University. In classic Urban style, he ended the song by shredding head-to-head with a fiddle player, bringing the crowd to their feet.
The pinnacle moment of the evening was the tribute to Haggard, who was introduced by actor and musician Billy Bob Thornton. He likened the Bakersfield legend to not only music's all-time greats but also its brightest literary minds. "I would put him up there alongside people like Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner," he said. Eric Church — who has a song titled "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag" — took the stage with Ashley Monroe and T Bone Burnett for a rendition of "Workin' Man Blues." Accepting his award, Haggard was notably taciturn: "Anything I'd say would be short of the mark," he said, with a single white rose attached to his lapel. The night's crowning honoree then started to make his way away from the mic, only returning a few seconds later to add, "Good music lives forever." To which many in the audience nodded and mouthed, "Amen."