The 2017 Country Music Association Awards marked one of its most political and emotional shows in years, as the night offered powerful moments focused on unifying as a country during a year dominated by gun violence, divisive politics and natural disasters.
Carrie Underwood broke down while singing during Wednesday night’s “In Memoriam” after photos of the 58 people who died at a country music festival last month in Las Vegas were shown. Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman quoted Maya Angelou when the foursome won vocal group of the year at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, while bandmate Karen Fairchild told the audience, “Kindness is an attractive quality.”
“Tonight should be about harmony, about what we can do together to change things,” Fairchild said.
That sentiment was present throughout the three-hour show, which aired on ABC.
While paying tribute to Charley Pride, filmmaker Tyler Perry said now is the time we have to all “find some common ground.” And the show opened with a performance by Keith Urban, Eric Church, Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum honoring the victims of the recent mass shootings, as well as the tens of thousands of people affected by hurricanes in recent months.
Urban took things a step further when he debuted a song called “Female,” which he said was inspired by the dozens of allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Harvey Weinstein. He earned a rousing applause after the performance.
The CMA Awards also paid tribute to some of the genre’s brightest stars who have passed away. Glen Campbell, who died in August, was honored during a touching performance of “Wichita Lineman” by Little Big Town and Jimmy Webb, who wrote the song.
Rascal Flatts and Dierks Bentley also paid homage to Troy Gentry, one-half of the popular country duo Montgomery Gentry, who died in a helicopter crash in September. Eddie Montgomery later joined in for the performance of “My Town,” as some audience members sang along with tears in their eyes.
“This has been a year marked my tragedy … Tonight we’re going to do what families do, come together, pray together, cry together and sing together, too,” said Underwood, who co-hosted the show.
“This show is dedicated to all those we lost,” fellow host Brad Paisley said.
Paisley and Underwood celebrated their 10-year anniversary — as hosts of the CMAs. They joked at the top of the show about CMA sending restrictions to press, barring them from asking singers on the red carpet about politics or guns. The restriction was rescinded following backlash. They also riffed on politics, taking shots at both President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
“Maybe next time he’ll think before he tweets,” they sang to the beat of Underwood’s massive hit, “Before He Cheats.”
One person they didn’t joke about was Taylor Swift. And though Swift is releasing her second pop album this week, she’s still being awarded for her contributions to country music.
Swift won song of the year — awarded to songwriters — for penning Little Big Town’s No. 1 hit, “Better Man.” Swift will release her sixth album, “reputation,” on Friday.
“She couldn’t be here tonight but Taylor, wherever you are, thank you for this beautiful song,” Fairchild said onstage.
Swift wasn’t the only pop star who had a presence at the CMAs. Pink sang her slow tune “Barbie,” backed by several musicians and singers, while One Direction’s Niall Horan performed a duet with Grammy-winning singer Maren Morris, fitting right in with the country crowd and showcasing his singer-songwriter side.
Garth Brooks, who lip synced during his performance because he said he didn’t want to lose his voice, won entertainer of the year for a sixth time, beating out Luke Bryan, Chris Stapleton, Church and Urban.
Other winners at the show included Miranda Lambert (female vocalist of the year), Brothers Osborne (vocal duo of the year) and Jon Pardi (new artist of the year). Campbell and Willie Nelson won musical event of the year for “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
Stapleton won male vocalist of the year and album of the year for his sophomore effort, “From a Room: Volume 1.”
“I’m always humbled by getting these things,” said Stapleton, who thanked his wife Morgane, who is pregnant with twins and was in the audience.
“I want to thank my kids and my kids that are on the way,” he added.
AP Writer Kristin M. Hall contributed to this report from Nashville.