CMA Awards: Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks, Keith Urban Among Winners at Emotional Show

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Garth Brooks

The ceremony included a tribute to those who died during the tragic Oct. 1 shooting at the Route 91 Music Festival in Las Vegas.

The 51st Annual Country Music Association Awards were held Wednesday at Nashville's 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. Many of the artists in attendance 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 and claimed his sixth overall win. “The most important thing — other than God himself — is you,” he said in his acceptance speech, referring to those in the stands. To say the broadcast was an emotional one would definitely be an understatement.

The awards ceremony started with a heartfelt tribute to the events of recent months (including the shootings at Las Vegas) featuring a tender and a capella 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 tune 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 join in, easily making it one of the top musical moments of not just this year's CMA Awards but the entire 51-year history of the show.

From there, 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, whom the two effectively roasted with a parody of Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” retitled “Before He Tweets.”

The pair were also  “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 hosts' monologues over the years. 

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 for a stirring tribute to the late Troy Gentry with their take on Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town." Making his first public performance since the Sept. 8 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 died on Sept. 8, Don Williams, with a rollicking take on his iconic song “Tulsa Time” after performing their current single “It Ain’t My Fault.”

Little Big Town delivered a beautiful homage to another major chart-topping artist who died 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 Jimmy Webb, the song’s writer and composer of so many other Campbell hits.

Underwood helped to pay tribute to 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 on this year's 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 last month.

Another visitor from outside the format was Niall Horan, who with Maren Morris delivered a medley of her hit “I Could Use a Love Song” and his “Seeing Blind.”

Yet another powerful performance on the night was Urban’s debut of his new single “Female,” a song about respecting women that was inspired by the dozens who have accused film mogul Harvey Weinstein of harassment and assault.

Other highlights 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 leading 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. And Stapleton delivered a flawless rendition of his current single “Broken Halos.”

Among the night's results, Urban — a 10-time CMA winner — walked away with his first nod in the single of the year category for the chart-topping “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” In what was a surprise to few, Taylor Swift earned the song of the year honor 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. Lambert reclaimed the female vocalist of the year trophy after Underwood won the prize last year. (Overall, it’s Lambert’s record-setting seventh win in the category.) Jon Pardi, who continued a career year with a nod as new artist of the year, thanked 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 upsets was 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. And Stapleton will have to clear more space on his mantle, as he also notched his third consecutive win in the male vocalist of the year category.

This story first appeared on Billboard.com.

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