An all-star group that included Kelsea Ballerini, Brooks, Kix Brooks, Eric Church, Ronnie Dunn, Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Thomas Rhett, Darius Rucker, and Keith Urban struck a chord of togetherness through the ABC broadcast with an emotional collaboration that began with Church singing “Amazing Grace” a cappella in silhouette, then the rest of the group joining in on Rucker’s uplifting hit “Hold My Hand” from his time as the lead singer of Hootie and The Blowfish.
Co-host Carrie Underwood then summed up the evening’s mission statement in the opening of her 10th-year monologue with Brad Paisley, “Las Vegas. Charlottesville. New York. Sutherland Springs. Historic storms in Texas, Puerto Rico and Florida. The list goes on and on. This has been a year marked by tragedy, impacting countless lives, including so many in our country music family. So tonight we’re going to do what families do – come together, pray together, cry together and sing together.”
By the end of the night, fans and members of the industry had done a little of all those things, celebrating the best music of the last year while calling for unity in a nation torn asunder by violence and tragedy, to remembering departed heroes such as Glen Campbell, who lost his fight with Alzheimer’s disease, to Troy Gentry, one half of the duo Montgomery Gentry, who died when his helicopter crashed on the way to a gig. The latter was honored with a performance by Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts and surprise guest and bandmate Eddie Montgomery.
In a special candlelit moment, Underwood delivered a show-stopping performance of “Softly and Tenderly,” remembering industry leaders lost this past year and closing by honoring the victims of the Las Vegas tragedy.
But the mood was lifted when, in traditional Brad and Carrie form, they brought levity to their 10th year co-hosting with humorous parodies reflecting current events “Way Down Yonder on the Scaramucci” and “Before He Tweets.” Often the subject of Paisley and Underwood’s jokes, this year Hill and McGraw flipped the script by surprising them with Brad and Carrie Barbies.
Brooks thanked his crew and band after winning the top CMA Awards honor for a sixth time. It marked the third time he’s won entertainer of the year back-to-back years – 1991-92, 1997-98 and 2016-17.
“It’s been 30 years,” Brooks said. “Never have I felt more like a part of this industry. It’s weird. We don’t belong to a label or anything, but every label guy in the industry is hugging me out there. It feels like family.”
Urban won the night’s first telecast award, taking single of the year for “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” Urban co-produced the song with longtime collaborator Dann Huff and it was mixed by Chris Lord-Alge. “Blue Ain’t Your Color” was the fourth single from Urban’s Ripcord album and stayed atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for 12 weeks.
Though she wasn’t there, former CMA entertainer of the year Taylor Swift was a presence at the 51st annual CMA Awards,” winning Song of the Year for “Better Man,” given solely to the song’s writer. Performer Little Big Town accepted the trophy for Swift.
“We’re really grateful that Phillip checked his email one night and that song was in there because he doesn’t always check his email,” LBT member Karen Fairchild said of her quartet-mate Phillip Sweet. “She couldn’t be here tonight with us, but Taylor, wherever you are, thank you for this beautiful song and for loving songs and loving Nashville.”
A clearly emotional Jon Pardi took home new artist of the year, one of three nominations he scored in 2017. His breakthrough “Dirt on My Boots” from his second album, California Sunrise, also scored song of the year and single of the year nominations. Pardi’s hands visibly shook as he held his trophy backstage while meeting with reporters and photographers. On display behind him was a painting of the singer created on the spot by artist David Garibaldi.
Chris Stapleton won his second album of the year award for From A Room: Volume 1, an album captured by producer Dave Cobb at historic RCA Studio A on Music Row, the place where so many classic Nashville records were cut. Stapleton won his first album of the year award for his debut Traveller in 2015.