June 11, 2014 12:00 PM

PEOPLE Country Exclusive

Though some of country’s biggest stars got top billing at the April 7 taping of the Academy of Country Music Presents: An All-Star Salute to the Troops Concert, it was the men and women in uniform who were the real stars. “I’m able to get onstage and do what I love every night solely because we live in a free country that our troops defend and keep that way,” Luke Bryan said, a sentiment not lost on him or any other country artists gathered for a PEOPLE Country photo shoot before the show. In fact, many of the artists shared the spotlight, performing hit songs with members of the Armed Forces. “I think it’s a great thing that we’re all getting together to thank the people that provide us with our freedom,” said Carrie Underwood, who cowrote a song called Keep Us Safe specifically for the event. When George Strait strolled onto the set he quickly began shaking hands with the troops who had gathered. “We owe them a lot,” he said. “I served three years in the military, and it was a great experience. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything.” Later, with thousands of troops cheering in the crowd, he would go on to perform The Fightin’ Side of Me with the legendary Merle Haggard – probably something else he wouldn’t trade for anything.

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