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The CMT Artists of the Year special is always a grand affair, but this year’s ceremonies were also shrouded in an air of mystery, as the artists being honored were kept secret until tonight’s show.
In the end, seven stars—as opposed to the five of years past—received trophies: Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood.
“It’s cool that artists that have really been working so hard have a night that is a big deep breath,” Miranda told Country Weekly on the event’s red carpet. “What I love the most is that other artists get to talk about each other and lift each other up. Country is the only genre that would ever do something like that.”
In Miranda’s case, it was Sheryl Crow who did the honors, presenting her with her Artist of the Year award. “It’s fun to watch her,” Sheryl said. “She’s going to be around for a long time.”
Other presenters included rock icon Sammy Hagar, who honored his pal Kenny Chesney, Kenny Rogers applauding Luke, Kid Rock saluting Eric, and a pair of baseball greats, Roger Clemens and Chipper Jones, batting around the accomplishments of Toby and Jason, respectively.
But it was Carrie who had the closest ties to her presenter: husband Mike Fisher.
“They’re putting him to work!” Carrie joked on the red carpet, before excitedly looking forward to the night. “It feels really good to be in great company this evening with the other honorees. I’m very excited to just enjoy a good show. It’s very low-key here. Everyone is hanging out at tables.”
Including Country Weekly, who had a stage-side seat from which to observe all of the evening’s performances, including Carrie's and Luke's, which received standing ovations. Carrie’s came from her knockout performance of new single “Two Black Cadillacs,” while Luke’s was spurred on from a cross-genre duet with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder on Luke’s “Drunk on You” and OneRepublic’s “Feel Again.”
Miranda also wowed the crowd with a stripped-down rendition of “Over You,” backed only by an upright bass and acoustic guitar. Eric, meanwhile, came packing when he revisited “Homeboy,” which was fleshed out by a string section and the soulful McCrary Sisters singing group. Toby, though battling a cold, turned in a rollicking take on “Beers Ago.” Jason closed out the night with “Take a Little Ride.”
Kenny was the only honoree who didn’t perform, but in his stead, fans were treated to a dazzling duet of “Come Over” by Eli Young Band and upstart Kacey Musgraves, both of whom will join Kenny on his summer tour.
“He is the pinnacle of what it means to be an entertainer,” Kacey says. “Across all formats, he’s amazing. He puts on such a good show. I’m going to learn a lot from him.”
It was Luke, however, who summed up the evening best. “Nights like tonight are bonus cherries on top,” he said. “It’s been an amazing year.”
CMT's Artists of the Year special, hosted by Nashville's Hayden Panettiere and Rascal Flatts, will re-air Sunday, Dec. 9, at 9:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. ET.
Look for more on Luke in the Dec. 31 issue of Country Weekly, on stands Dec. 24, as well as more on CMT’s Artists of the Year in a future issue.