The evening began with an emotional tone as Garth Brooks asked for a moment of silence in memory of the 12 lives lost during the Nov. 7 shooting at the Borderline in Thousand Oaks, California. The mood of the show shifted quickly into the raucous, with Luke Bryan’s “What Makes You Country” turned into a honky-tonk romp featuring Luke Combs, Lindsay Ell, Chris Janson, Jon Pardi, Cole Swindell, and Ashley McBryde. Taking the stage next was Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who decided to forgo their usual entry into political fodder, electing to keep the joke on themselves.
A hot topic of discussion was Underwood’s pregnancy, and a surprise appearance from child sensation Mason Ramsey.
Other winners included an emotional Luke Combs, who netted the new artist of the year trophy. Making the evening all the more memorable for the singer was the fact that his parents were in the Bridgestone Arena crowd, prompting the Columbia recording artist to say “God, I love country music” to the audience’s delight. Earlier in the day, three awards were presented: “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” from Kenny Chesney and David Lee Murphy for vocal event, Thomas Rhett’s “Marry Me” for video of the year, and Mac McAnally for musician of the year.
Though the boundaries of the format continue to be pushed, several of the top performances of the evening contained throwback themes. Lauren Alaina performed a verse of Dottie West’s “A Lesson In Leavin” in tribute to the newest female inductee of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Also, Paisley, Keith Urban, Sierra Hull, and Marty Stuart led an all-star tribute to Ricky Skaggs -- the second of this years’ inductees -- paced by the singer’s '80s anthems “Highway 40 Blues” and “Country Boy,” as well as the Bluegrass standard “Black Eyed Susie.” Midland turned back the hands of time to 1977 with a rollicking version of the Jerry Reed classic “East Bound And Down,” which served as the musical centerpiece of frequent country music supporter Burt Reynolds’ film Smokey & The Bandit, in honor of the Hollywood great, who passed away at the age of 81 on Sept. 6.
Other standout performers included Garth Brooks’ tender debut of “Stronger Than Me,” the spicy “Got My Name Changed Back” from The Pistol Annies, a fiery performance of Dan + Shay’s “Tequila,” Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha’s record-setting smash “Meant To Be,” a soaring performance from Underwood on “Love Wins,” an energetic run through “Never Comin’ Down” from Keith Urban, and a collaboration on “Friendship” featuring Chris and Morgane Stapleton, Marty Stuart, Maren Morris, and the incomparable Mavis Staples, which magically morphed into The Staple Singers’ iconic “I’ll Take You There.”