The Academy of Country Music hosted its glitzy, Las Vegas-based annual awards ceremony back in April.
Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium, the organization hosted its more intimate 11th ACM Honors ceremony, dedicated to recognizing the special honorees and off-camera category winners.
Recorded for broadcast on CBS in September, the evening tipped its cap to legends and newcomers, with one young upstart stealing the show.
The night at the "Mother Church" of country music launched with a winning tribute to Reba McEntire — winner of the Mae Boren Axton Service Award — by Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum and Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town. Particularly stirring was Fairchild and Scott's rendition of McEntire's classic wife/mistress duet "Does He Love You," with Scott taking up the part originally sung by her mother, Linda Davis.
An emotional McEntire praised the women's performance and spoke glowingly of her award's namesake Axton — a co-writer of "Heartbreak Hotel," among others — who was a close friend.
Brad Paisley paid homage to Dolly Parton — recipient of the Gary Haber Lifting Lives Award — with a gentle, hushed take on "My Tennessee Mountain Home" complete with an intricately finger-picked acoustic solo.
Parton, a vision in pink, was moved by the honor, given in part for her work with her Imagination Library — which has donated more than 100 million books to children across North America and the U.K.— and her telethon to raise funds for those affected by the fires in the Smoky Mountains in 2016. She reminded everyone that the best thing fans could do was return to the Smokies, exclaiming, "We're in business!"
Newcome Kelsea Ballerini was honored with the Gene Weed Milestone Award and sang a medley of her No. 1 hits, including "Peter Pan" and "Love Me Like You Mean It." Following the night's pattern, Ballerini choked up recalling her move to Nashville, saying that she would watch videos on CMT and Google the songwriter credits on her favorite ones.
"It wasn't long until I decided I wanted to be Hillary Lindsey," she said of the co-writer behind hits like Little Big Town's "Girl Crush" and Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel." Lindsey joined Ballerini to perform the young singer's poignant new ballad "Legends," and Ballerini said being able to take the Ryman stage with Lindsey was "an award in itself."
No doubt one of the writers she Googled was Lori McKenna, Lindsey's "Girl Crush" co-writer, who won the Songwriter of the Year Award for penning, among others, Tim McGraw's hit "Humble and Kind." During her acceptance speech, McKenna, a Massachusetts native who wrote the hopeful anthem for her five kids, noted: "The thing about songwriters is we don't define ourselves by gender, race or anything else, we just call ourselves songwriters."
Although there were many heavy hitters on hand, the night's hottest performance was given by Chris Janson, who paid raucous homage to the late Shel Silverstein, a Poet's Award winner.
Janson, who had been sweating it out in clubs and on the road for several years before his 2015 breakthrough hit "Buy Me a Boat," brought the heat — and fiery harmonica licks — to renditions of the poet-author-singer-songwriter's best known musical numbers. He roared and stomped through Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" and had fun with the cheeky "Cover of 'Rolling Stone'" by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, earning two standing ovations in the process.
Befitting his royal status, the George Strait portion of the evening — he was the recipient of the Cliffie Stone Icon Award — closed the show. Chris Stapleton performed the mournful "When Did You Stop Loving Me," and Alan Jackson offered a medley of the pensive "Marina Del Rey" and the bawdy "The Fireman," capping it with a line from his and Strait's pointed show business critique "Murder on Music Row."
Accepting the award, Strait said he figured he would last maybe five years in the business and noted that he is going on 30. And he proved he hasn't missed a step, bringing the show home with "Here for a Good Time."
Among the night's other winners were the CMT series "Nashville," which received the Tex Ritter Film Award; DJ Bob Kingsley, who also received the Mae Boren Axton Service Award; and Toby Keith, who also took home a Poet's Award.
The 11th ACM Honors will be broadcast on CBS at 9 p.m. Sept. 15.