Earlier this week, CMT held its annual Artists of the Year ceremony at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center. It was a night to fete great icons and to bolster newcomers in a celebration with pageantry and mutual admiration that is often only seen in country music circles.
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The honorees of the night include Kane Brown and Luke Combs (both marking their third AOTY awards), Walker Hayes, Cody Johnson, Carly Pearce, Lainey Wilson, and Alan Jackson, who was aptly dubbed Artist of a Lifetime.
Throughout the night, each honoree took the stage (minus an absent Combs) to perform a current radio hit that has proliferated their buzz, while their fellow country stars joined in for tributes. The night also acted as an homage to the late, great Loretta Lynn, who, as Jackson remarked on stage was a singular force.
Ahead of all the excitement the actual ceremony provided, the artists and invited guests walked the red carpet and spoke to American Songwriter about how they were feeling heading into the night. Gratitude and awe fluttered around the building as the honorees geared up to take their place in the country music annals.
Though he kept his appearances on stage, Jackson’s name was a popular topic among the honorees. On top of being singled out as the best and brightest the genre had to offer this year, they were able to share the billing with Jackson, which—we don’t care who you are—sparks a sense of pride.
“I’ve never been able to go to an Alan Jackson concert,” Johnson remarked. “Now to have front-row seats for such a country music icon—I’m more excited about seeing him than I am about me playing.”
Riley Green, who performed in honor of Combs, added “When I first heard Alan Jackson, I fell in love with his voice and his songs. Then I found out how much he writes in his own songs and that was what drew me in as a songwriter. Just such a legendary artist. It’s cool to be a part of this.”
When Jackson finally took the stage – after much anticipation – he played his 1992 hit “Chattahoochee” as the crowd clapped and shuffled along with the icon.
On the other end of the spectrum, Lainey Wilson was bolstered at the Breakout Artist of the Year, joining the likes of Chris Stapleton and Mickey Guyton as past recipients. As she took the stage, she lilted around “Heart Like a Truck,” which will feature on her impending album, Bell Bottom Country.
Before her performance, she remarked to American Songwriter, “I feel like we have finally gotten through and gotten somewhere. I’ve been in Nashville for 11-plus years, just trying to sing and write country music. CMT has been good to me from the very beginning.”
She added, “This last year has been a whirlwind. I’ve slept in my bed, I think 10 nights this year, but we’re living the dream.”
Pearce got the waterworks flowing when she took the stage, playing “29,” from her album of the same name. With string accompaniment and Pearce’s vocal prowess, the performance was one of the most stirring of the night. Hayes brought out Ciara for a blinged-out performance of their new duet, “Y’all Life,” while Brown wowed the crowd with a performance of “Like I Love Country Music,” with a horde of backing dancers in tow, proliferating his reputation as a floor-filler.
Johnson slowed things down with an acoustic rendition of his current single “Human.” On the carpet, he said “This is the only song in over 15 years of my career that I’ve ever sat down in the studio to play. There’s something about sitting down and playing as if we were around a campfire that feels special.”
Special it was. A new side of Johnson was shown during the ceremony, proving that he could be both an amped-up performer and an intimate lyricist.
While much of the ceremony was in celebration of current excellence in country music, everyone in the room kept Loretta Lynn on their minds throughout the night.
Wendy Moten spoke about Lynn’s trailblazing efforts saying, “She was a very big advocate for women, of all races. She was a voice for women when women had to fight to be seen and heard.”
Wilson added, “I would not be here and I would definitely not be the songwriter I am without Loretta. She said what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it. The way she blazed a trail was insane.”
With each class of AOTY honorees being ushered in, we see a new wave of incredible talent that seems to flow from an untapped source in the genre. You can relive all these performances and more on the CMT AOTY website, HERE.
Photo courtesy CMT Communications