When The Band Perry, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Hunter Hayes, Kellie Pickler and other top country acts took the stage last night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena for ACM Presents: An All-Star Salute to the Troops they did more than perform for the military, they gave some of the men and women in uniform a chance to show that their skills extend beyond their usual posts when they engaged them to perform duets. The show was taped for a CBS television special slated to air May 20.
Hosted by LL Cool J and Chris O'Donnell from the CBS hit NCIS: Los Angeles, the taping took place one night after the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards. Proceeds from the event will benefit ACM Lifting Lives, the charitable arm of the Academy. ACM entertainer of the year winner George Strait and Merle Haggard, who received the ACM Crystal Milestone Award, opened the show with Haggard's classic "The Fightin Side of Me," which got the crowd on its feet for the first of many standing ovations. They were followed by the Eli Young Band's energetic cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Three Steps."
Next up, a video introduced Destiny Coates, who serves in the Navy. She joined Urban on stage to deliver a powerful rendition of "For You," which Urban recorded for the film "Act of Valor." Katie Spira, who serves in the Coast Guard and is the only woman on a crew of 22 men, joined Hunter Hayes on stage for a lively rendition of Imagine Dragons' "On Top of the World."
"When I first heard they were doing this tribute to the troops, I thought, 'This is absolutely brilliant. How have we not done this already?'" Hayes told Billboard before the show. "I was honored to be invited. These are unbelievable men and women. They deserve so much. A tribute is the least that we can do. I have members of my family who have served in the military and I respect them immensely. Music is one of the many ways we can say 'thank you' and one of the many was we can celebrate these unbelievable people, what they do, and the heart they have. I'm just stoked that I get to be a part of it."
The event featured performances by Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Florida Georgia Line, Lee Brice and Luke Bryan, who had the audience singing along loudly on the emotional "Drink a Beer." Carrie Underwood got a standing ovation after performing an original song she wrote for the show titled "Keep Us Safe." Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert taped their performance of "Over You" earlier and the video received an enthusiastic response from the crowd.
Many of the night's most memorable performances were the artist collaborations with the military personnel. Clad in her Air Force dress uniform Baily Zimmerman joined Kellie Pickler on stage for a spirited rendition of "Red High Heels." Marine Mike Corrado performed with Toby Keith on the appropriate "Call a Marine." Lady Antebellum delivered their recent No. 1 hit "Compass" with the help of two talented Marines. Staff sergeant Brandon Valentine took the stage for a stellar performance with Rascal Flatts of their current single "Rewind." Army specialist Kelly Gregg, who is stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, joined the Band Perry for a stunning rendition of their hit "If I Die Young." When they finished, the audience began yelling "Encore!" and Kimberly, Neil and Reid Perry with specialist Gregg obliged and received a second standing ovation.
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"Tonight at the Academy of Country Music's All Star salute to the Troops it was the experience of a lifetime," Specialist Gregg told Billboard after the show. "I get to wear the uniform and do what I love. I couldn't be more thankful."
The show concluded with Toby Keith performing "American Soldier" as the talented servicemen and women who had performed during the evening filled the stage behind him. After the song, Keith shook each of their hands and then received a surprise when he was presented with the Spirit of the USO Award. "I saw a need. I saw a void that the great Bob Hope left behind years ago that no one was filling," Keith told the crowd after accepting the honor. "Two hundred shows later, we stand here today."
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