As promised, CMT’s annual Artists of the Year telecast Wednesday night took a “triumph of the human spirit” turn, as country stars gathered for their first regularly scheduled kudocast since the Las Vegas shooting and took time to read scripted material acknowledging the tragedy and celebrating resilience.
Jason Aldean closed the show by reprising his “Saturday Night Live” cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” this time singing only a few lines and leaving most of the lead vocals to fellow honorees Luke Bryan, Chris Stapleton, Keith Urban, and Florida Georgia Line.
Bryan addressed the tragedy most directly in his remarks introducing Aldean. “It could have been any one of us standing on that stage in Las Vegas two weeks ago,” Bryan said. “It’s a nightmare nobody should have had to face. Jason Aldean has responded with dignity, care, respect, and, in some ways, defiance.”
The telecast opened with an inter-genre unity display, as Andra Day and Little Big Town performed Day’s “Rise Up,” followed by those acts being joined by Common, Lee Ann Womack, and Danielle Bradbery for “Stand Up for Something,” the “Marshall” theme song.
In between those bookends, chosen for their topical power, came more standard selections from the honored artists’ recent repertoire. The most poignant of these, under the circumstances, was Stapleton’s “Broken Halos,” a ballad with a where-is-God-when-it-hurts theme. It was unclear whether Stapleton had already planned to perform the tune or had specifically chosen it for the occasion, but, said the Brothers Osborne in introducing him, “When Chris wrote this song, it would have been impossible for him to know how appropriate it would be in times like these.”
Stapleton and the other honorees, standing side by side after the opening performance, read material that took care to mention the devastating hurricanes and fires that have afflicted much of the country, as well as the massacre. “The entire nation is trying to process these devastating events,” Stapleton said. “On this night, one that we usually celebrate a year of music, we also want to celebrate a year of incredible human spirit.”
If none of the written material lingered on the downbeat long enough to provoke any tears, one silent moment did: An “In Memoriam” segment, introduced by Amy Grant as “a moment to recognize the members of the country family who have left us too soon,” followed up the images of Glen Campbell, Don Williams, Troy Gentry, and Petty with a scroll listing the names of the fallen fans in Las Vegas.
Things lightened up considerably as Lionel Richie, introducing Bryan, indulged in some shtick about how his Gucci boots stood in the way of entertaining any of Bryan’s entreaties to join him in hunting and fishing (the “loving” part of Bryan’s hit “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day” smash went unmentioned). And as sober as Stapleton’s song and speech were, the Brothers Osborne added a crowd-pleasing, censor-testing off-script moment when they added that the reason is he’d become a superstar is “because he’s f—ing awesome.”
Inside Nashville’s relatively intimate Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Stapleton got the biggest cheer from the industry crowd seated at tables on the floor, but, surprisingly, perhaps, Urban got the loudest roar for any of the five honorees from the fans in the three tiers of balcony seating.
It had nothing to do with the tragedy that had become the inevitable underlying theme of the evening, but Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color” was, by acclamation, the highlight of the night, in large part because he’d worked up a jazzy new arrangement of the smash, centered around piano, upright bass, and the singer’s own blues guitar licks.
In a couple of instances, a cover artist stood in for the honored artist or material, with mixed results. For the first time, CMT had added a Song of the Year bonus award for this year’s telecast, the obvious pick being Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road.” It was announced that Hunt was otherwise occupied, finishing up his tour in Hawaii, so the honor of performing it went to “American Idol” Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, who was so immobile behind his guitar and microphone that the question of why he’d been chosen to personify such a playful song never got a good answer.
There wasn’t mystery behind the choice of the Backstreet Boys to cover Florida Georgia Line, since they spent a good part of the year on tour together, following up on a collaboration previously realized in a “CMT Crossroads” episode. Whatever anyone might think of “H.O.L.Y.” as a song, it ended up more sanctified than before, with the Boys’ five-part harmonies more than doubling up on the honored duo’s efforts.
Despite the solemnity of some of the context of the telecast, spirits were high inside the Schermerhorn, perhaps because the occasion offers industry participants, if not a breather, one last chance for a more relaxed affair before the stress of CMA Awards week in early November. At the Artists of the Year event, there’s no stress over failed nominations, drink service at the tables, and, best of all, as far as some participants are confirmed, the whole thing is over in a brisk 90 minutes. The Schermerhorn is also a superior location for an awards show, even if its small capacity doesn’t leave much room for servicing screaming fans. Viewers may legitimately wonder how much of the music is pre-recorded at any given music awards show, but at least for the live attendees at this show, there wasn’t much room for doubt, when everyone is close enough to feel the reverberations of the kick drum.
The 2017 edition of the CMT show posted its highest ratings to date, with more than 1.1 million viewers tuning in to the live showing and the encore. According to the network, the 90-minute premiere telecast posted a .35 A 18-49 L+SD, a 61% year-over-year increase. The event performed even stronger with women notching .42 W 18-49, up 73% from a year ago.
Said Frank Tanki, general manager of CMT and TV Land: “We felt a commitment to our fans to transform the event into a night where we honor human resilience through music, and hopefully in the process lift spirits. We’re thrilled that the special connected with so many people, especially those who’ve been impacted by the recent tragedies.”