John Shearer/WireImage
Eileen Finan
December 01, 2017 07:15 PM

What was it like to back up the likes of Tim and Faith and Garth and Luke during the rousing opener at November’s CMA Awards?

“We were just having a ball,” Matt Smyth, one of the choir members who joined the country stars on stage, told PEOPLE.

The joyous performance of Hootie and the Blowfish’s 1994 hit “Hold My Hand” (led by Hootie singer-turned-country-A-lister Darius Rucker himself) followed a few quiet lines of “Amazing Grace” sung a capella by Eric Church, but the sing-a-long was meant to be a celebration.

“It was about celebrating unity and showing that we love each other,” says Smyth, a member of Nashville’s Portara Ensemble, a choral group that was recruited along with choir members from Tennessee State University to harmonize on the opener.

Matt Smyth
Courtesy Matt Smyth

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The civilian singers only met the celebs the day of the performance but even in rehearsal, Smyth says, the vibe was fun.

“All the celebs are just in their sweatpants and their casual clothes and it was really cool,” he says. “Garth Brooks was getting into it – he was dance clapping and Faith was dancing and we were all just high energy.”

Kix Brooks with Matt Smyth in black tie behind him
Courtesy Matt Smyth

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The show would strike reverential notes with Church’s spare rendition of the gospel standard and with Carrie Underwood’s later tearful tribute to the fallen, but with the opening number, “the idea was we needed to crush having fun and celebrating life and that’s what we were there to do,” Smyth says.

Mission accomplished according to the night’s Entertainer of the Year Brooks: “After we sang, he turned to us and was like, ‘That was amazing guys!’” Smyth recalls. “He’s just so sweet.”

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