At CMT Artists of the Year 2014, Luke Bryan's Loss Is Front & Center

Luke Bryan
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Luke Bryan performs onstage during the 2014 Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 18, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Chris Cornell & Wiz Khalifa are among the unlikely guests as Bryan, Keith Urban, Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, Florida Georgia Line & Merle Haggard are honored.

You know you're in country music's world when Chris Cornell is just a backup singer. The Soundgarden frontman kicked off Tuesday's (Dec. 2) CMT Artists of the Year special by backing up the night's first honoree, Jason Aldean, with guitar and vocals on his latest single "Just Gettin' Started."

Luke Bryan Cancels CMT Performance After Brother-in-Law's Death

Aldean was one of five Artists of the Year feted at the annual event -- plus Artist of a Lifetime honoree Merle Haggard -- joining Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, who had to sit the night out following the death of his brother-in-law over the weekend.

"One of my buddies, Luke Bryan, is not here tonight, dealing with some family stuff in Georgia," Aldean said after accepting his Artist of the Year trophy from his soon-to-be tourmate Kenny Chesney. "Just want to say I'm thinkin' about you, you and your family. Our thoughts and prayers are with you all. Hurry back to the country music world."

After an introduction from fellow badass Danica Patrick, Lambert performed one of her quieter songs, "Holding on to You." Her Pistol Annies bandmate Ashley Monroe then presented her with her Artist of the Year hardware. "My husband, I always forget to thank him, but he's my rock," she said through tears before (needlessly) identifying her Voice coach spouse: "Blake Shelton. He's somewhere on TV right now."

In Bryan's absence, Lady Antebellum agreed to sing "Drink a Beer" with one of the track's co-writers, Chris Stapleton. While Bryan didn't help write the song, it spoke to him because of the deaths of his two siblings: brother Chris and sister Kelly. His brother-in-law who died over the weekend was the husband of Bryan's late sister. "Family comes first, and sadly, Luke's family faced a tragic loss this weekend with the death of his brother-in-law Lee," Lady A's Charles Kelley said before the performance. "So tonight, we wanted to perform a song that's very special to Luke."

Bryan already responded to the performance on Twitter, thanking his friends for the fitting tribute:

Florida Georgia Line performed their mellow hit "Sun Daze" before receiving their Artist of the Year honor from -- who else? -- Wiz Khalifa. "I'm proud to be their fan and happy to know that they're mine too," Wiz said. "That's the way it should be, because as musicians, we're brothers and sisters. And that's how these two roll."

Cornell returned to the stage to introduce Urban's performance of the James Brown classic "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" -- appropriately backed by a 10-piece all-female band.

Urban made sure to spotlight Luke Bryan in his acceptance speech: "I want to send my love and prayers out to Luke and all your family tonight too, brother. You're right here tonight, brother," Urban said as he patted his heart.

To wrap up the night, Haggard was introduced as the inaugural Artist of a Lifetime by Billy Bob Thornton. Before he accepted the honor, Eric Church, Monroe and T-Bone Burnett paid tribute to the outlaw country star by performing "Workin' Man Blues."

"Anything I'd say would be short of the mark, so thank you very much and God bless you," Haggard said to wrap up the night. "Good music lives forever!"