Accepting his CMT Artist of the Year award on Wednesday, Chris Stapleton made note of the fact that he'd won the honor a couple of times before, but he said, "This show is different tonight."
And in the pandemic era, how could it not be? Everyone in the audience at Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Hall had been tested twice for COVID-19 just to enter the space. The room wasn't filled to even half capacity, and masks were required during commercial breaks.
But Stapleton's mind wasn't on any of that in the midst of an event that somehow managed to transcend the presence of the world's most uninvited guest. He spoke near the end of the 100-minute show, after listening to so many of his fellow award recipients express humble gratitude and watching performances that were remarkably selfless.
"It's the first time I've been in a room with a lot of folks again, really," Stapleton emotionally told the crowd, mostly from the Nashville music community. "We've done some of these things remotely, but I feel a lot of love in the room tonight ... And that's what music's about. It's about love."
Granted, no one was ready to thank a coronavirus for the spirit that Stapleton identified, but no one could argue he was right. This night was different — and perhaps much of it had to do with the fact that one of country's most beloved icons, Randy Travis, was also being honored with the Artist of a Lifetime award.
Early in the evening Luke Combs, after performing his hit "Forever After All," strayed from his customary litany of thanks in his Artist of the Year acceptance speech to pay homage to Travis.
"Randy, I watched you play in this building a few years ago with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, and I was absolutely blown away," Combs told the country icon, who was seated in the audience. "And to be in the same room with you in the same place and have a small fraction of an impact on country music like you've had, man, is incredible."
Later, honoree Kane Brown ceded his opportunity to showcase his own music to honor Travis instead, delivering a stone-cold country rendition of Travis' 2002 classic song of redemption, "Three Wooden Crosses." Brown's gratitude was personal: He built his early fanbase by posting cover songs of country stars, such as Travis, on YouTube.
"Randy, thank you for letting me do this, brother," Brown told Travis before his first note. "You know I love you to death."
Garth Brooks was ultimately the one tapped to usher Travis to the stage, and he did so with an extravagantly generous introduction from one country king to another.
"I've said it before and I'll say it again, Randy Travis single-handedly saved country music," said Brooks, who also inducted Travis into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016. "Even though it happened in the '80s, it's still today. I wouldn't be standing here if it wasn't for Randy Travis. I don't think any of us would be."
Brooks, by the way, was Nashville's magic man on Wednesday night, also appearing at another downtown venue with wife Trisha Yearwood to honor Keith Urban at the annual Country Radio Hall of Fame dinner and awards ceremony.
Throughout the CMT event, there were other opportunities for unselfishness, and the artists took them. As Breakout Artist of the Year, Mickey Guyton could have seized the moment for herself, but instead she chose to share a performance of her powerful "Remember Her Name" with another rising star, roots artist Yola.
In her acceptance speech, Guyton spoke movingly about finally gaining entrance, as a Black woman, into the Nashville artist community. "When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window," she said, "and in my case, he shattered a whole glass ceiling."
Looking out into her audience, she noted that "so many of you guys put me on a platform, when you had no incentive to do so, and I take that, and I honor that, and I will do the same and work for other up-and-coming artists."
She'd already paid it forward in the duet: Both she and Yola are fully capable of vocal pyrotechnics, but Guyton let Yola be the one to set off the biggest sonic fireworks, and their stunning display of sisterhood lifted the audience to their feet.
(Earlier, on the red carpet, Yola revealed their rehearsal was special in a different way: "It was emotional. There were tears. They were ours. We were crying, and it was just being aware of how much of a moment it is.")
Stapleton himself provided one of the evening's most unselfish gestures, choosing to give away his coveted performance slot.
His presenter, former Nashville star Connie Britton, explained his decision in her introduction. "When we asked him what song he wanted to play," she said, "he turned around and asked some of his heroes to make one of his songs their own."
R&B legends Boyz II Men, with an assist from Pentatonix's Kevin Olusola, then took command for a spellbinding reinterpretation of Stapleton's "Cold." The performance was marvelous proof of just how pliant Stapleton's music is across genres, and as he watched it all happen nearby, the honoree looked like he was having the time of his life.
"I don't think that's Chris Stapleton's 'Cold' anymore," he said as he accepted his trophy. "That's Boyz II Men's 'Cold.' How awesome is that?"
Other memorable, heart-touching moments arrived over the course of the show.
Gabby Barrett, another Artist of the Year honoree, delivered a solemn, stripped-down version of her second No. 1 hit "The Good Ones," a tribute to her husband, Cade Foehner, who was seated beside her lending her accompaniment on his guitar. And just how much of a "good one" is he? At her last note, he couldn't help himself, putting his hands together and joining the audience's applause for her riveting performance.
Randy Travis' wife, Mary, earned some of the loudest applause of the evening when she accepted the Artist of a Lifetime award for her husband, who's been silenced by a stroke for the past eight years.
"It may have taken the voice," she said, "but it didn't take the man, and it didn't take the heart. And you know what else? It didn't take the music. We'll have that forever and ever, amen." It was a poignant nod, of course, to Travis' signature song.
Accepting her Artist of the Year honor remotely after a sweet introduction by artist husband Morgan Evans, Kelsea Ballerini was unguarded in her gratitude, sharing a hard lesson she's learned from the quarantine. She recalled how much her life has been controlled by a list of career goals she'd set down as a teenager, and "it's been incredible because I've gotten to mark so many off."
But then, she said, the pandemic intervened, laying waste to all those best-laid plans. "What I've learned — and what I'm learning — is to loosen up my grip on what I think I want and just be here," she said, speaking from the stage of FirstBank Amphitheater in nearby Franklin, Tennessee, where she was appearing with the Jonas Brothers. "So thank you so much for just letting me be here with you tonight."
Her appearance was recorded on Sept. 17; she and the brothers, who performed the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends," were actually in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday night.
Rapper Nelly, who just released a country-inspired album, should have received his own award for the evening after his heroic battle with an uncooperative teleprompter as he introduced pal and collaborator Kane Brown. The artist's halting delivery was at first puzzling — until he'd finally had enough, stopped his recitation and took command.
"Hold on ... It's moving too fast," he exclaimed in frustration. "I can't see it. Please could you make those letters a tad bit bigger? There you go. Let's try that one more time."
Whereupon he started again from the top and flawlessly delivered the script.
The evening ended on a deliriously happy note with Walker Hayes — in his first-ever awards show appearance — riding his unstoppable "Fancy Like" locomotive to center stage and delivering his national sensation of a song. The audience joined in the fun, singing along with the infectious lyrics. Kane Brown jumped to his feet to groove out to the beat, and even Gabby Barrett was defenseless against the lure of those "two straws, one check" TikTok dance moves.