“I hope my family is watching back home.”
That’s what Dolly Parton thought when she won her first Country Music Association award in 1968. The CMA Awards were in their infancy, only one year old, and were being televised for the first time, but for a young country singer, winning one of the bullet-shaped trophies was already the stuff of dreams.
“I remember how proud I was to win an award,” Parton says of her first CMA, which she shared with duet partner Porter Wagoner for Vocal Group of the Year. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope my family is seeing all of this.'”
Parton, who along with more than 30 other country stars shared their CMA memories in PEOPLE’s Special Edition: 50 Years of the CMA Awards, went on to win a total of nine awards. But as 12-time CMA winner Miranda Lambert knows, even return trips to that podium don’t blunt the emotion of the moment.
“It’s all so scary when you are in a room with people that you admire so much and who you look up to and who influenced your life and career,” Lambert says of her first CMA show in 2005. “My first win, I don’t remember what I said. I felt like I just floated out of my own body. It’s like looking down from above. I still feel that way going every year. I never lose the butterflies. It always feels like, ‘I can’t believe I’m still part of this amazing family.”
For Trisha Yearwood, it really did feel like a family welcome when she performed the first time at the CMAs in 1991. “In my dressing room there was a bouquet of flowers,” Yearwood says. “I thought my mom and dad probably sent them. The card said, ‘Welcome to your first CMAs.’ It was from Reba. I might cry telling it! Someone knew what it felt like to be the new girl, and it meant the world to me.”
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Brett Eldredge remembers being wowed by his first CMA red carpet in 2010. “I was living in a little place and I had this limousine pull up and my neighbors were like ‘What’s going on here?'” he says. “At this point I had nothing going on, but I got to walk the red carpet. A lot of people didn’t know my name, but I thought ‘By golly, one day they’ll know my name. I’m going to figure that out!'”
And he did. In 2014, he took home the Best New Artist trophy, and as he made his mark on the genre, he moved up in the country pecking order as well. “One of my favorite moments was when I actually became known enough to have a seat closer to the stage,” he says. “I was sitting right behind Willie Nelson. I could literally touch his braids!”
For a kid growing up in Australia, winning a CMA was “mind-blowing,” says Keith Urban of his first, the New Artist award (then called the Horizon) in 2001. “Growing up watching the CMAs at home, you imagine people saying your name and so when you’re sitting in an audience and suddenly people are opening an envelope and saying your name it’s a pretty surreal moment.”
That same year left a deep impression on the singer for another reason. Held just two months after the 9/11 attacks (the show was postponed because of the tragedy), the show offered one of the most moving performances in CMA history when Alan Jackson took the stage to sing “Where Where You (When the World Stopped Turning)”.
“I remember just being covered in chill bumps,” Urban says. “There was a sense of healing. I remember feeling a sense of us, of oneness.”
The CMA Awards will broadcast live from Nashville on Wednesday, Nov. 2 from 8-11 p.m. EST on ABC.