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CELEBRATION, REFLECTION AT THE CMT ARTIST OF THE YEAR AWARDS

CMT: Country Music Television rolled out their annual high-class, linen-tablecloth tribute to the year’s biggest stars Wednesday night at Nashville’s tony Schermerhorn Symphony Center. CMT saluted Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line and Little Big Town, as well as special awards for Artist of a Lifetime Kenny Rogers, International Impact Artist for the cast of Callie Khouri’s music-business drama Nashville and the first-ever Breakout Artist for Chris Stapleton.

Kicking off the night with Darius Rucker and Team Blake Voice alumnae Cassadee Pope and RaeLynn, CMT kept the focus on performances, taped packages and tribute introductions— with the tone ranging from Dan Rather celebrating his friend Rogers to Shelton ribbing pal Bryan about having a Yankee Candle that smells “exactly like Luke: vanilla with a hint of deer urine.”  Stapleton, with wife Morgane Hayes on vocals and tambourine, brought a heavy Delaney & Bonnie vibe to his performance of “Nobody to Blame,” with Willie Nelson vet Mickey Raphael on harmonica. Along with his stunning performance with Justin Timberlake on the Country Music Association Awards three weeks ago, the burly songwriter/vocalist reminded people—a la Adele—that real music, real talent and raw emotion connect in massive ways when allowed to have the spotlight.

Big-voiced Adam Lambert and British star Leona Lewis gave LBT’s “Girl Crush” yet another layer of LGBT potential in the night’s biggest surprise performance. Like Stapleton, they brought naked emotion—and demonstrated the CMA/Academy of Country Music Group of the Year transcend genre with their singular performance.

Hunt—the year’s other new-artist story—has also melted genre lines with his distinctly smooth urban tinge, his notably woman-sensitive lyrics and “throw out the playbook” marketing in tandem with Universal Nashville chair Mike Dungan and prexy Cindy Mabe. Yet after a slinky ramble through the audience on “House Party,” he invoked groundbreaking traditionalist Randy Travis in his acceptance speech.

CMT brass Brian Phillips, Leslie Fram and Jayson Dinsmore were all front and center for Executive Producer John Hamlin’s first Artist of the Year special since going independent. Also on hand for the plated dinner were WB Nashville head John Esposito, Big Machine Label Group chairman Scott Borchetta with his A&R head Allison Jones, Republic leader Jimmy Harnen and PR leader Jake Baseden, power managers Jason Owen, Brad Bellenger, Kerri Edwards, Ken Levitan, Coran Capshaw and WME/Endeavour Nashville co-chair Greg Oswald.

FGL’s Tyler Hubbard was sidelined due to reactions to an immunization for an upcoming African mission trip, so Brian Kelley picked up the duo’s third CMT Artist of the Year. LBT’s Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild also missed the show due to the death from cancer of Westbrook’s sister Joyce Marie Westbrook Morgan, giving a a sense of reverence to this year’s show that put the focus on life. LBT’s Phillip Sweet and Kimberly Schlapman spoke of the group’s years together, importance of family and Morgan’s spirit, with Schlapman closing, “Tonight, Joyce, this is for you.”

Kenny Rogers also hit an emotional note, explaining that seeing Ray Charles as a young boy inspired him to become a singer. Then he told the artists present, “When you go onstage, know that some 10-, 11-, 12-year-old boy or girl is saying the same thing to their parents. You can change the world.”

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