George Strait, Reba McEntire, Jason Aldean, Kelsea Ballerini and 17 other stars were all in their places, ready to have their photo taken. So what was the holdup? Just like the country song says, they were waitin’ on a woman – and this woman was worth the wait.
Suddenly, a vision in pink sequins floated into the room, and the room erupted in whoops and cheers. Let’s face it: No one quite knows how to make an entrance like Dolly Parton. Sidling up to Strait, she dropped an elbow on his shoulder – why would Strait mind? – and soon the camera’s flash was popping.
It was just one of many memorable moments behind the scenes as PEOPLE exclusively gathered presenters, performers and award recipients of the 11th annual ACM Honors for a “class photo.” (The one-of-a-kind image appears in the Sept. 18 issue of PEOPLE.)
Though mere minutes away from the taping of the show, which airs Friday, Nashville’s A-listers treated the shoot as an opportunity for some casual fun and catching up.
Less than two weeks after the birth of his daughter, Ada James, on Aug. 12, Thomas Rhett was receiving bountiful congratulations and advice, as well as commiseration over sleepless nights. Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, already a mom and now pregnant with twins, listened attentively as Thomas Rhett described his first few days living with a newborn.
Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet stopped to give Thomas Rhett a bear hug.
“I’m so happy for you, man,” Sweet said, no doubt also having in mind Thomas Rhett’s recent adoption of 22-month-old daughter Willa Gray from Uganda.
Aldean, who arrived at the shoot with expectant wife, Brittany, whose baby boy is due in December, also drew excitement over his upcoming addition. Nashville’s Charles Esten, the father of a son and two daughters, could be overheard comparing the difference between raising boys and girls to Aldean, also the father of two daughters.
As Aldean and Thomas Rhett powwowed about their growing families, Lady A’s Charles Kelley – the father of a one-year-old – couldn’t help but swoop in: “New babies, babies and babies! I gotta start working again!” (His other bandmate, Dave Haywood, is expecting his second child — a daughter — in December.)
Kelley turned merry prankster once the stars took their spots for the shoot, delighting in teasing with Reba McEntire, who was seated in front of him. As the photographer urged his subjects to shift their poses, Kelley made his move.
“Charles, don’t do anything,” McEntire playfully scolded. “Charles, don’t you dare!”
“Just take this really quick,” Kelley yelled to the photographer as he planted a wet smooch on McEntire’s cheek.
“I’m surrounded by good-looking men,” McEntire said, surrendering. “What can I do?”
After the shoot, McEntire huddled with Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman and Lady A’s Scott, the three women who would be singing a McEntire tribute that evening.
“I’m nervous,” Fairchild confessed to McEntire, a longtime friend.
For more from the photo shoot, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.
In another corner of the room, Thomas Rhett was having his own butterflies as most of the other stars filtered out. Then he shyly walked over to Strait, another straggler, and stuck out his hand to King George.
“Thomas Rhett,” he said. “Good to meet you. I don’t think we’ve ever met.”
“I don’t think so,” Strait replied with a smile and a handshake.
“It’s a pleasure,” Thomas Rhett said. “I just wanted to say hello.”
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Mission accomplished, and it was time to go.
That was a moment, wasn’t it?
“Yeah,” Thomas Rhett said, beaming. “I told myself I was gonna do it, and it happened.”
The ACM Honors special will air Friday, Sept. 15 at 9 p.m. EST on CBS.