The annual CMT Artists of the Year ceremony, held last night (Dec. 2) at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center, celebrated the top country artists of 2014.
Honorees Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban were announced ahead of time, but that was the only predictable part of a short and occasionally bittersweet evening. Here are our favorite moments.
Larry the Cable Guy Gets Spiffy
Early in the evening, host Larry the Cable Guy revealed the real reason he was wearing a suit rather than his signature sleeveless plaid: front-row audience member Miranda Lambert. “And I’m not wearing any underwear,” he informed her. (She cringed, adorably.)
Keith Urban Bares His Soul
Upon introducing the globally appealing Keith Urban, rocker Chris Cornell quipped, “How else do you explain a kid who grows up in Australia and somehow becomes a superstar in country music with 17 number one hits?” As if he’d just been challenged to outdo himself, the Aussie blasted out a cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” complete with an all-female backing band, a ripping guitar interlude and a Matrix-like face-off with his fiery violinist. The only thing this showstopper was missing: a mic drop.
Luke Bryan’s Peers Make a Moving Toast
Three days before the show, Luke Bryan’s brother-in-law, Lee, tragically passed away; he was married to Luke’s late sister, Kelly, who died unexpectedly in 2007. While the CMT honoree mourned with his family in Georgia, his friends Lady Antebellum and songwriter Chris Stapleton stepped in for a hauntingly fitting tribute: an acoustic version of Luke’s hit “Drink a Beer,” which Stapleton co-wrote and Luke has dedicated to Kelly and his brother, Chris, who died in a car accident in 1996. Not crying yet? A somber audience full of stars and fans sang along before giving the foursome a standing ovation.
Miranda Lambert Gives a Sweet Speech
After a simmering performance of “Holding On to You,” from her current CMA Album of the Year, Platinum, honoree Miranda Lambert stepped up to the mic to accept her award. “I’m so nervous,” she announced before thanking gal pals Ashley Monroe and Danica Patrick as well as CMT. The audience held its breath—Miranda’s forgotten to name-check a certain Voice judge on more than one occasion—but she pluckily continued: “My husband, I always forget to thank him, but he’s my rock.” And, in case anyone wasn’t sure exactly whom she’s married to, she quickly added, “Blake Shelton.”
A Country Legend Is Honored
Merle Haggard’s Artist of a Lifetime Award was prefaced by a killer rendition of his 1969 hit “Workin’ Man Blues” courtesy of Ashley Monroe, producer T Bone Burnett and a visibly giddy Eric Church. The Hag’s subsequent acceptance speech was politely succinct—“Anything I’d say would be short remarks,” he told the crowd, “so thank you very much and God bless you.” One theory: he was left near-speechless by Ashley’s mega-plunging neckline.
Group and Larry the Cable Guy by Rick Diamond/Getty Images; Keith Urban by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images