A duet between Mickey Guyton, one of the “CMT Artists of the Year” honorees, and guest artist Yola on the title track of Guyton’s new “Remember Her Name” album brought memorable vocal firepower to the annual show’s 2021 in-person resumption, broadcast live from Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center Wednesday night.
Other highlights included Randy Travis being emotionally saluted in speech by Garth Brooks and in song by Kane Brown, and Chris Stapleton getting the tribute treatment from Boyz II Men, again making explicit the oft-implicit, historical country/R&B connection.
After being introduced by dancer Misty Copeland, who described Guyton as “a pioneer,” Guyton expressed gratitude for her Breakthrough Artist of the Year award from the network. “Y’all, look at God,” said Guyton. “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window. And in my case he shattered a whole glass ceiling.
“Three years ago this was not even a possibility for me,” Guyton continued. “I had completely given up on myself and my dream to sing the genre of music that I held so close to my heart. It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my husband and he told me to live and be authentically me, unapologetically, and write from my experience as a Black woman living in America. And it changed my life and I have made it my life’s purpose to show that country music is really everyone’s music…
“So to that little 7-year-old Black girl at home, that indigenous boy, that LGBTQIA+ teen, and that Latino boy or girl, and anyone marginalized or unseen — and yes, even the haters on social media — this is for you,” Guyton added. “I am here for you. I am my sister’s keeper.”
While Guyton was getting the night’s on-the-rise award, Travis was being awarded for being an ascended master.
“I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again, Randy Travis singlehandedly saved country music,” said Brooks in giving the legend his Artist of a Lifetime award, referring to the period when Travis reintroduced traditional elements into the format’s top 10. “Even though it happened in the ’80s, it’s still today. … Every artist that takes the stage in county music over the next 100 years should bow to this man and thank him for his contribution. … I know that if you’re like me, you pray that another Randy Travis shows up every day, man.”
Travis, who has not been able to perform or to speak at length in public since suffering a stroke, had his wife, Mary Davis, speak for him, smiling and occasionally chiming in with a “yup.”
“It’s a pretty good night for me,” Davis quoted her husband as saying. She added, “The aphasia from the stroke, it may have taken the voice, but it didn’t take the man, and it didn’t take the heart. And you know what it didn’t take the music. We’ll have that forever and ever, amen.”
Brown performed Travis’ 2002 country-gospel smash “Three Wooden Crosses” in his honor. “I had to redeem myself singing that song, because the first time i met you, you surprised me at a radio station and i couldn’t finish the song,” Brown noted.
Brown offered perhaps the ultimate testimony to the endurance of Travis’ music: “I see you everywhere. I see you on TikTok…”
Brown was being honored himself, as one of five official Artists of the Year selected by CMT, along with Stapleton, Kelsea Ballerini, Gabby Barrett and Luke Combs. He was introduced by the rapper Nelly, who lauded Brown for using his performance time on the telecast to salute Travis instead of singing one of his own hits.
“I ain’t gonna lie,” said Brown. “When i was rehearsing, I was like, man, why I gotta sing when Chris Stapleton is right here?”
Stapleton was the only one of the five Artists of the Year to not perform on the telecast; instead, he was feted in song by Boyz II Men.
Said Stapleton in his acceptance speech, “I don’t think that’s Chris Stapleton’s ’Cold’ anymore. That’s Boyz II Men’s ’Cold’ now.”
“Chris, you’re a real one. You let us all know that soul, good singing, and a heart of gold can still be prevalent in music,” said Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman before being joined by Kevin Olusola of Pentatonix for a version of “Cold” that included everything from beat-boxing to a prominent viola part.
“Chris, man, everybody wants to be you,” Combs said offhandedly in his acceptance speech, echoing a common refrain. “You’re so awesome, dude.”
Stapleton, in accepting his award, noted that “we’ve done a lot of these things remotely” and expressed thanks for being able to see friends again at his first post-quarantining awards show appearance.
Ballerini did not attend the ceremony, due to having a tour date opening for the Jonas Brothers Wednesday night. The show featured a duet she and the Jonases did of the Beatles “With a Little Help From My Friends,” filmed at a Nashville-area stop on the tour in September. Ballerini said in her remote acceptance speech that she originally had a different tour plan for this fall but changed it when the request came in to open for the Jonas Brothers. “What I’m learning is to loosen up my grip on what I think I want and just be here,” she said.
Barrett performed her hit “The Good Ones” after being introduced by Christian music star Michael W. Smith.
The show veered away from the night’s official honorees in its closing moments to be very much in the October 2021 moment with a concluding performance by Walker Hayes of “Fancy Like,” the country breakout phenomenon of the year, thanks to TikTok exposure leading the way for the tune.