With the 2018 CMT Artists of the Year special Wednesday night dedicated solely to honoring female country artists, a tribute to one of the greatest women in any musical genre was, well, a natural. Aretha Franklin, who died in August after battling pancreatic cancer, influenced generations of women, transcending genres with her soul-deep voice and songs with empowering lyrics.
Brandi Carlile and Maren Morris, two artists who have infused their own genre-crossing music with dashes of country, pop, rock and soul, took the stage to pay homage to Franklin with a soaring duet version of Franklin’s massive 1967 hit “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
After Morris, an Artist of the Year honoree, delivered the first verse, Carlile stepped into the spotlight where the two harmonized on the chorus. As Carlile took the second verse, the roar of approving – and largely female – cheers could be heard from the audience. As the two women carried the performance to its emotional peak, the camera captured the beaming smile of special guest, pop-R&B legend Gladys Knight, as she sang along from her seat. The turbo-charged performance, which garnered a standing ovation from the crowd, also earned the approval of a couple of the men in attendance, Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook, who were there to help celebrate their bandmates, Artist of the Year honorees Kimberly Schlapman and Karen Fairchild.
Also honored during the live CMT special were Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Kelsea Ballerini and Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott.