NASHVILLE, Tenn. – CMT honored a diverse group of country musicians reflecting the wide range of styles the genre has embraced, from country rocker Jason Aldean, guitar slinger Keith Urban and fiery singer Miranda Lambert, and then capped it all with a special tribute to country legend Merle Haggard.
The “CMT Artists of the Year” show, which aired live from Nashville, Tennessee, on Tuesday evening, bounced from country’s present, future and past with nods to influences from rock n' roll, hip hop, rhythm and blues and the Bakersfield Sound.
Aldean, who is one of country’s biggest touring artists, teamed up with Chris Cornell, of the rock bands Soundgarden and Audioslave, to open the show with a blast of arena rock guitars.
“When we heard he was going to be here, I started trying to figure out a way to get him on stage with us,” Aldean said of Cornell.
Lambert, who made history this year as the most decorated female country artist at the CMA Awards last month, followed with a soulful performance of “Holding On To You,” from her album, “Platinum.”
Urban meanwhile took to the stage with an all-female backing band to perform James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” while rapper Wiz Khalifa lauded his party brothers, Florida Georgia Line, as “two guys that are hitting it hard.”
“We look up to him a lot,” said Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard about the rapper. “He’s got a lot of great music and we’ve hung out with him a couple of times.”
Haggard, who watched it all from the audience, was given the first Artist of a Lifetime award for his own innovations in modern country music when he helped create the twangy electrified California country sound half a century ago.
Eric Church, along with country singer Ashley Monroe and musician T Bone Burnett, performed Haggard’s “Workin' Man Blues,” and actor Billy Bob Thornton compared Haggard to writers like John Steinbeck and Tennessee Williams.
“He’s truly a storyteller,” Thornton said. “And that’s something that has been lost.”
The songwriter who penned tunes about drifters, convicts and blue collar workers, including “Okie From Muskogee” and ‘'Mama Tried,” was succinct upon accepting the award.
“Anything I’d say would fall short of the mark, so thank you very much and God bless you,” Haggard said.
Reigning CMA entertainer of the year Luke Bryan was also scheduled to receive one of the night’s honors, but a death in his family forced him to cancel his appearance. The country group Lady Antebellum and songwriter Chris Stapleton dedicated a performance of Bryan’s acoustic ballad, “Drink a Beer,” to Bryan in his absence.
“Tonight, if you’re watching back home, Luke, this one’s for you and your family,” said Lady A singer Charles Kelley.