Following devastating hurricanes and the tragic mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, honorees Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line‘s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban used Wednesday’s event to send heartfelt messages directly to their fans from Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
The six men opened the 90-minute special with speeches of hope and unity after Andra Day and Little Big Town dedicated a moving musical tribute of Day’s hit “Rise Up” to all who have suffered tragedy this year.
“Music can be so powerful and we’ve never needed it more than we do right now,” Bryan, 41, began the intro segment. “Music moves us. Music brings us together. And tonight music can be a part of the healing.”
Then, Stapleton shared: “From Las Vegas to Puerto Rico, from Florida and Texas to Charlottesville and California, the entire nation is trying to process these devastating events. But on this night, one that we usually celebrate a year of music, we also want to celebrate a year of incredible human spirit. A spirit that we see in our fans every night.”
Hubbard, 30, and Kelley, 32, continued the emotional presentation by reminding fans of the strength of country music amid tragedy.
“The character of country music fans is obvious to us all. We see it all the time. When the natural disasters strike, you step up to lend a helping hand and open your hearts and wallets for those in need,” Kelley said before Hubbard shared, “During tragedies like Las Vegas, so many people — from concertgoers to first responders who risked their own lives for total strangers — it’s in those moments, those acts of courage and heroism, that bring light to even the darkest times.”
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Also, Urban, 49, reminded the audience and viewers the true purpose of the night.
“In some small way tonight, we want to thank you for your resolve and perhaps lift your spirits just for a moment. We hope to remind you that everything we go through, we can get through when we stick together,” he said.
Aldean, 40, closed out the segment with a somber statement, reflecting back on the Route 91 Harvest Festival, the outdoor country music gathering where he was performing before a gunman killed 58 people and injured 489.
“We’ve been tested beyond our worst nightmares the past few months. Heartbroken doesn’t even begin to explain how some of us feel,” he said. “But we have proven time and again in this country that we have the power to overcome anything that threatens our way of life or our freedom. We dedicate this night to you and to everyone who’s experienced loss or tragedy in the past few months. Like Keith said, we will get through this together.”
CMT switched gears this year, ditching the usual artist acceptance speeches and choosing instead to turn the televised program into one of music, hope and healing following the recent devastating natural disasters and mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. Halfway through the show, Amy Grant introduced a video listing all 58 victims from Las Vegas in addition to recognizing artists who recently died including, Troy Gentry, Tom Petty, Glen Campbell and Don Williams.
Later in the show Stapleton received a standing ovation for his performance of “Broken Halos,” a song he’s dedicated to the victims of the Las Vegas shooting. Backstreet Boys also wowed the crowd to their feet with their magnetic rendition of Florida Georgia Line’s, “H.O.L.Y,” as did Urban with his jazzy version of “Blue Ain’t Your Color.”
“How do we not make that kind of darkness change our way of living so much that it’s taken the color out of it,” Urban told PEOPLE before the show. “That’s what we’re dealing with.”
Before closing out the show, Bryan moved the audience to one final standing ovation recognizing his pal, Aldean. “It could’ve been any one of us standing on that stage in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. Jason Aldean has responded with dignity, respect and in some ways defiance, and we are all proud of him.”
Joined by Stapleton, Urban and Little Big Town, Aldean ended the show with an appropriately rocking and tailored performance of “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty.