“I just want to lift up Kane and his family,” Rhett said. “And I want to lift up his drummer and their family. Can I just pray, really fast? Is it OK with everybody?”
Then Rhett bowed his head.
Chris Young presented Brown with his CMT Artists of the Year trophy, and Brown broke down in tears.
“I want to dedicate this to my drummer Kenny (Dixon),” Brown said, his voice shaking. The pair had played together since before Brown’s fame, and the “Heaven” singer said Dixon always believed in him.
“People didn’t think we would make it,” Brown continued, then dropped his head into hands. “He was with me the whole time. He was so supportive of me. The band misses you. I love country music. God bless you guys. You all stay safe.”
Young, who also experienced the unexpected loss of a friend, gave an emotional performance of his new single “Drowning,” which is about processing grief. Members of the audience dabbed at their eyes, and Young received a standing ovation.
While Brown’s heartbreak rippled through the evening, the program was mainly a celebration of 2019’s high points in country music.
CMT Artists of the Year marked its 10th anniversary Wednesday night by paying homage to the genre’s most successful artists, tipping its hat to country heroes and spotlighting its brightest up-and-comers.
Honorees included Brown; Rhett; Dan + Shay; Luke Combs; and Carrie Underwood. Also honored were Reba McEntire, who was given the Artist of a Lifetime Award, and Ashley McBryde, who received the Breakout Artist of the Year award.
“We come together to celebrate each other, and we all have one thing in common — country music,” said “American Idol” personality and syndicated radio host Bobby Bones.
Dan + Shay opened the show with their Grammy-winning hit “Tequila,” which got the peer-packed audience singing along, including Rhett, Lindsay Ell and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley.
The duo’s singer Shay Mooney has one of country music’s most dexterous voices. He brought the audience to its feet with his soaring, sustained high note at the end of the song.
“‘Tequila’ comes out and it’s like a monster,” Brown said in a video reel.
“Those guys have been busting it for so long,” Rhett said. “They are the epitome of hard work.”
Mooney’s voice cracked with emotion when he and duo partner Dan Smyers accepted the crystalline trophy. Smyers took the chance to reflect on the full-circle moment. CMA presented the duo with its first award in summer 2018.
“For a lot of years, we sat in the seats at awards shows, and it didn’t fall our way,” said Smyers. The duo has won a Grammy and trophies from the Academy of Country Music. They also have multiple nominations going into the Country Music Association Awards next month.
“CMT, thank you guys for believing in us and for changing our world in a bigger way than you know.”
Combs wasn’t present to accept his trophy because he was on tour, but actress-turned-singer Chrissy Metz performed his new song “Even Though I’m Leaving.” Underwood was also absent due to a tour. CMT live-streamed a mash-up of “Two Black Cadillacs” and “Blown Away” before Maddie & Tae presented Underwood with her trophy onstage in Ohio.
“I’m so honored to be in such cool company,” Underwood said. “Thanks to the crowd, the fans for supporting all of us. The fans at home and the ones here tonight — you guys are the reason we get to do what we do.”
Kid Rock introduced McBryde, saying: “She an inspiration to everyone who risks everything for a dream that ignites their soul.”
McBryde brought the crowd to its feet with her new single “One Night Standards.”
“Everything about her belongs in country music,” Rhett said.
McBryde remembers well a time when she felt like no one cared.
“What am I even doing this for?” she said she asked herself.
She explained people would stick dollars in her tip jar when she performed, and when she felt down, she would go count them — except she called it counting her “moments.”
“Every dollar bill is a moment for someone,” she said.
Lady Antebellum paid tribute to McEntire with her hit “Is There Life Out There,” and Sam Hunt kicked in with a rousing version of “Fancy.” Vince Gill, a longtime friend of McEntire, presented her with her trophy.
“Well, this has been a very inspirational, emotional night,” McEntire said. “The youngsters that were up here before me, I can say I’ve been in this business for 43 years, and I’ve loved almost every minute of it.
“Thomas Rhett, God bless you for praying in front,” she continued. “You’re special. You’re special. That took guts. It better be aired. It better make the cut. That’s what we need in our life, is a little more God. We’ve got to give this world back to God. I love this business, and I love country music. I love you all.”
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