“Vince and I, we put lots of miles on buses, on planes, golf carts, had fun together, and that’s what this business is all about: the people we get to learn from and get to know,” she said, wiping away tears. “I’m very blessed to have so many friends. I thank God, and Thomas Rhett, thank you for praying. You’re special. That took guts.”
McEntire was celebrated with a special performance by Lady Antebellum and Sam Hunt, who covered her songs “Is There Life Out There” and “Fancy,” respectively. Gill, meanwhile, presented McEntire her trophy, explaining that more than an artist of a lifetime, McEntire is “a friend of a lifetime.”
Here are the night’s most memorable moments from the stage, red carpet and audience.
Dan + Shay’s rousing “Tequila” vocals: Dan + Shay kicked off the show with a spellbinding performance of “Tequila.” Already a massive global hit, the duo proved exactly why it is one of the most talked about country acts of 2019. A captivating song lyrically and melodically, Shay Mooney’s powerful falsetto shined throughout the band’s time on stage and his final belt had the entire room erupting in applause with Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley being the first to get up out of his seat for a standing ovation.
Country music is a big family: The event served as a night to honor some of the biggest country acts of 2019, but it also proved to be a family reunion of sorts. During the commercial breaks, artists would mingle with each other, presumably catching up from life on the road and congratulating one another following their awards. Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott chatted with McEntire at her table near the stage while Thomas Rhett shared a hug with Dan + Shay’s Dan Smyers following the duo’s performance and acceptance speech. Pop star Tori Kelly and actress Chrissy Metz were also in attendance and shared some words before each took the stage later that night as a presenter and performer, respectively.
The emotional speeches: There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Brown took the stage to accept his honor and dedicate the award to his deceased bandmate. "I want to dedicate this to my drummer Kenny. He started with me coming out of Chattanooga off Facebook. People didn't think we would make it. He was with me the whole time,” he said through tears. “He was so supportive of me. I love you, man. I miss you. The band misses you."
Thomas Rhett served as a beacon of light through a difficult time within the country community. Touched by Brown’s own speech, the singer said he wanted to “lift up Kane and his family and his drummer and his family … I know this is very unconventional, but can I just pray really fast? Is that okay with everybody?” he asked before going into a prayer. “Father God, we love you so much. Loss is something that we can’t comprehend so right now I pray that you will be with Kane and his family and his drummer, Kenny, and his family and bring them peace that only you know how to bring somebody.”
Reba’s indisputable influence on the genre: Ahead of the CMT Artists of the Year ceremony, several country acts walked the red carpet and discussed McEntire’s impact on their own careers.
Tenille Townes: “She is such a bright light and such a creative genius. She’s reached people in so many different pockets and ways … She has this courageous fire about her. She’s a powerhouse. As an artist at the beginning of things, looking at her and the path she has created throughout her entire lifetime and continues to, that’s something to look up to.”
Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley on covering “Is There Life Out There”: “It’s a very female empowering song and it’s so timely now. It makes you listen to those lyrics in a whole other way. It’s timeless music and that’s what we’re always trying to do and that’s what she keeps doing decade after decade.”
Ashley McBryde: “When I was in fifth grade I had a thing called a Singalodeon, a two-tape deck karaoke machine. It came on pamphlets, all the lyrics. One of my pamphlets was a Reba McEntire cassette. I was literally trying to do the riffs that she does since I was a kid. She had a hand in shaping every note I ever sang.”
Lindsay Ell: “Getting an artist of a lifetime honor, that’s such a huge moniker. She can sing, she can act, she can do Broadway, she can pretty much do anything. As a new artist, as a female in this industry, she’s so inspiring. She still works so hard at this level of her career and if that’s a bar I can shoot for, then I’m headed in a pretty good direction.”
Country music dreams come true: Thomas Rhett, while on the carpet with his pregnant wife Lauren Akins, who also served as a presenter, admitted that he still remains in disbelief when he’s given an award.
“In the beginning of my career, anytime I got nominated for anything me and Lauren were like, ‘How is this even happening?’ CMT Artists of the Year, for your peers and CMT to vote you one of the top five or six artists of the year, is really mind-blowing,” he told Billboard. “We don’t see that part. All I see is the songwriting, being on the bus and playing shows. I don’t think you understand what you’re actually doing out there and how many people you’re playing for and how songs resonate with people, so it’s been really cool to see our friends and family and our fans and especially CMT think of me as one of those people. It’s really, really special.”