Faith Hill and Tim McGraw

Faith Hill and Tim McGraw perform onstage at the 51st annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 8, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn. 

Terry Wyatt/FilmMagic

The 51st Annual Country Music Association Awards were held in Nashville tonight at Bridgestone Arena, and, as expected, it was a night of messages of unity, with many moments during the evening emphasizing the feelings that many have felt over the past few months. It was a night that many of the artists spoke of a deep connection with their fans -- which became more prevalent after the tragic events of Oct. 1 in Las Vegas at the Route 91 Music Festival.

That bond between the audience and the artist was noted by Garth Brooks, who repeated in the evening’s top category of entertainer of the year – claiming his sixth overall win. In his acceptance speech, he said “The most important thing -- other than God himself -- is you,” referring to those in the stands. To say the broadcast was an emotional one would definitely be an understatement. 

The evening started with an heartfelt tribute to the events of recent months (including the shootings at Las Vegas) with a tender and acapella verse of the gospel standard “Amazing Grace” from Eric Church. The music continued to take an inspirational slant, with Darius Rucker, Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum combining their talents for “Hold My Hand,” a song that Rucker knew well – as a member of Hootie & The Blowfish. As the song progressed, the tone of the evening continued with what seemed like every artist inside Bridgestone Arena coming onto the stage to perform the song, easily making one of the top musical moments of not just the 2017 CMA Awards – but the entire 51-year history of the show. From there, show hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley noted recent events, paying tribute to those lives that were lost during the past few months, and saying that for the format, the best way to honor those was to play the music “loud and proud.” The two then quickly delved into their usual humorous fare, poking fun at a variety of targets – including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, who the two effectively roasted with a parody of Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” titled “Before He Tweets.” The two were “surprised” by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who turned up to give the hosts their own miniature “Barbie Dolls” in their likenesses – a nod to the couple being a frequent target of the host’s monologues over the year. 

If you thought that the CMAs were going to sweep away the emotional significance of the past year after the opener, you would have been mistaken – as Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts teamed up for a stirring tribute to the late Troy Gentry with their take on Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town,” acknowledging his passing on Sept. 8. Making his first public performance since the helicopter crash that took his musical partner’s life was Eddie Montgomery, who received a standing ovation from the crowd - which included Gentry’s widow, Angie. Brothers Osborne also paid tribute to another artist who passed away that same day, with a rollicking take on Don Williams’ iconic hit “Tulsa Time” after wrapping up their current single “It Ain’t My Fault.”  Little Big Town paid a beautiful homage to another major chart-topping act to pass away this year with a stark version of “Wichita Lineman” in honor of Glen Campbell, who passed away in August. Playing keyboards with the group was the song’s writer -- and composer of so many Campbell hits, Jimmy Webb. Carrie Underwood helped to pay tribute to the other Country Music-related personalities who died in the past year with a gorgeous version of “Softly and Tenderly,” played over a pictorial montage -- which also included the images of each of the 58 country music fans killed in Las Vegas on Oct. 1. The crowd was visibly moved by the performance, which ended with Underwood in tears.

Though her presence in 2017 on the CMAs might have been questioned by some (especially with her collaboration with Kenny Chesney coming last year), pop superstar Pink delivered one of the more emotionally poignant moments of the evening with “Barbies,” a cut from her just-released album Beautiful Trauma, which opened atop the Billboard 200. Another visitor from outside the format was Niall Horan, who delivered a medley of her hit “I Could Use A Love Song” and his “Seeing Blind.” Another powerful performance during the night was Keith Urban’s debut of his new single “Female,” which was inspired by the Harvey Weinstein story that has been in the news for the past month.

Other highlights of the evening included Kelsea Ballerini’s performance of her current single “Legends,” which featured a vocal cameo from a definite legend herself, Reba McEntire Alan Jackson – a new inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame – took the viewers back in time with one of his early hits “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.” Miranda Lambert proved why she is the record winner in the female category with a traditional-flavored performance of “To Learn Her,” a track from her critically-acclaimed disc The Weight of These Wings. Stapleton delivered a flawless rendition of his current single “Broken Halos.” 

Keith Urban -- a ten time CMA winner -- walked away with his first win in the single record of the year category for the chart-topping “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” In what was a surprise to few, Taylor Swift collected the song of the year prize for penning the Little Big Town smash “Better Man.” Though the Capitol Nashville supergroup didn’t win that award personally, they did take home their sixth straight win in the vocal group of the year field. Miranda Lambert reclaimed the female vocalist of the year trophy after Carrie Underwood won the prize last year. Overall, it’s Lambert’s record-setting seventh win in the category. Jon Pardi continued his career year with a win as new artist of the year, thanking a long line of supporters that included “All of my friends and family who watched me play in dive bars and fairs back home.” One of the biggest surprises of the night was Chris Stapleton’s win for album of the year for From A Room, Volume 1, which won over the heavily-favored Lambert disc. The singer thanked his wife, Morgane, his kids, and “his kids that are on the way,” in reference to her just-announced pregnancy. The singer will have to clear some space on his mantle, as he also notched his third consecutive win in the malevocalist of the year category. 

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">In NYC for SNL rehearsals. I️ LOVE YOU <a href="https://twitter.com/littlebigtown?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@littlebigtown</a> and CMAs. <a href="https://t.co/3QT7bX6yOe">pic.twitter.com/3QT7bX6yOe</a></p>&mdash; Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) <a href="https://twitter.com/taylorswift13/status/928448941615656961?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">November 9, 2017</a></blockquote>
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In awards presented earlier, Brothers Osborne -- who repeated during the ABC telecast as vocal duo of the year -- notched a win in the video of the year category for “It Ain’t My Fault,” while musical event of the year was presented to a pair of musical icons. “Funny How Time Slips Away,” a cut from Glen Campbell’s final album Adios, was named the winner in the category. The song was a collaboration with the song’s writer, Willie Nelson. It was the first CMA win in 15 years for Nelson (whose last win was in the vocal event category for “Mendocino County Line” with Lee Ann Womack), and the first CMA win since 1968 for Campbell, who was named both male vocalist and entertainer of the year that year. Renowned instrumentalist Mac McAnally made a little bit of history by taking back the musician of the year category after a one-year sabbatical. In claiming his ninth trophy, he tied the mark set by Chet Atkins -- who was the winner in the previously-titled instrumentalist of the year category nine times from 1967 and 1988.