When the cameras weren't looking, the stars prove they were still irresistibly watchable, and PEOPLE was there to see it at the 2019 CMT Awards

By Nancy Kruh
June 06, 2019 11:30 AM
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The CMT Awards are known for their party atmosphere, and no one brought it more than Luke Bryan. Sure, you saw him rock out on stage performing new single “Knocking Boots.”

But what you didn’t see on TV was when he grabbed the hand of the show staffer who was directing cameras in the celebrity seating and broke into an impromptu dance with her – complete with a twirl – to music piped in during a commercial break. (If you’re curious, it was Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream.”)

Wonder what else happened in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, on the red carpet (which was actually blue) or in PEOPLE’s photo booth when the network cameras weren’t looking? We were there to see it all.

CMT Music Awards
Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty; Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; Mike Coppola/Getty

BEWARE OF BACKWASH: Of course everyone watched Breakthrough Video of the Year recipient Ashley McBryde grab Luke Combs’ drink on her way out of the stands when she went to accept her award. “I’m always awkward and I usually bring my drink with me [onstage],” McBryde explained on the show, “but I didn’t have a drink so I took Luke Combs’ drink.”

Ashley McBryde CMT Music Awards
Ashley McBryde
| Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Combs’ smile showed he was a good sport, but did McBryde actually return the drink to him? Of course she did … well, after she’d taken a couple sips. And did Combs keep working on it? Let’s just say he was pretty done with that drink.

QUICK RECOVERY: Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd evoked screams when they appeared before photographers before the show, but Morris, whom a source confirmed felt under the weather, sent her hubby off alone to awaiting reporters and a first round in PEOPLE’s photo booth. “Hey, I love you — have fun,” she told him before a quick kiss. Hurd obeyed his wife’s orders, crashing the Brothers Osborne’s PEOPLE photo session — and sharing a tequila shot. Hurd noted John Osborne’s shirt, emblazoned with “Heal the Earth.” “Oh, man,” he quipped, “I didn’t bring any statement!” Morris regrouped and took her seat with Hurd before the show, then turned in memorable performances solo and with Sheryl Crow.

Maren Morris Sheryl Crow CMT Music Awards
Maren Morris and Sheryl Crow.
| Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty

TRAIN’S A-COMING: RaeLynn arrived on the carpet in fashion overstatement: a dress with a train so large that it required four people to tote it. “You look insane!” exclaimed Hannah Mulholland of Runaway June. RaeLynn responded with a twerk and a nod to Lil Nas X’s ubiquitous “Old Town Road.” “Got the horses in the back!” she trilled.

LOOKS LIKE A HIT: Thomas Rhett’s new album Center Point Road has been out for less than a week, but his Nashville pals appear to be already well acquainted with it. Morris and Dan + Shay’s Shay Mooney were both singing along to his opening performance of “Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time” with show hosts Little Big Town and Trombone Shorty. Kelsea Ballerini did a little sit-down dance to the funky music, and Lauren Alaina‘s hand in the air said she was a believer. Thomas Rhett, by the way, sat solo — wife Lauren Akins was MIA after taking photos on the carpet — and he spent a lot of time during the evening staring at his phone. Perhaps checking on the homefront?

FANBOY: Dierks Bentley has been effusive on tour about newcomer Tenille Townes, one of his openers, but if there’s any doubt about his admiration, all you had to see was his reaction to her singing a snippet of her single, “Somebody’s Daughter.” From first note to last, Bentley was on his feet, hands over head clapping. He was stationed directly across from the side stage where Townes performed, so surely she didn’t miss him cheering her on.

Tenille Townes
Tenille Townes
| Credit: Andrew H. Walker/Shutterstock

FREE BEER! Midland’s Cameron Duddy pretended to hawk beer in a running gag with show hosts Little Big Town, but TJ Osborne took the comedy seriously. After the first bit ended, Osborne rushed over to Duddy and grabbed two beers before the prop box was taken from him by a stagehand. Osborne triumphantly returned to his seat, presenting the extra beer to brother John.

PDA (ICYMI): The celebs who came coupled up had two distinct ways of showing affection to their significant others while seated in the audience. In the “cuddle” category were Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd, as well as Kelsea Ballerini and Morgan Evans. And then there was the “gently resting a hand on a knee” approach, which was the choice for Luke Combs (with fiancée Nicole Hocking), Luke Bryan (with wife, Caroline), Kane Brown (with pregnant wife, Katelyn) and Brett Young (with wife, Taylor, who’s also expecting).

Lauren Bushnell and Chris Lane
Lauren Bushnell and Chris Lane.
| Credit: Robby Klein/Getty

Chris Lane and girlfriend Lauren Bushnell took it over the top in the photo booth, jokingly busting a move (and more than one twerk) for the camera. By far, Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney delivered the sweetest affectionate moment when both grabbed their wives’ hands simultaneously at the moment Brandi Carlile and Chris Sullivan were about to announce duo video of the year. It was the perfect gesture, considering the Dan + Shay video, for “Speechless,” featured footage from both of their weddings.

HUGGING IT OUT: The biggest lovefest of the evening came after Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Deana Carter, Carly Pearce, RaeLynn, Lauren Alaina and Brandi Carlile joined Tanya Tucker for her classic “Delta Dawn.” Long after the cameras cut away, the women were all still onstage, each making sure no singing companion had gone unhugged.

Tanya Tucker
Credit: CMT

SPICING THINGS UP: Yes, in case there was any doubt, Zac Brown did drop the F-bomb when he accepted group video of the year for his band. The TV censors caught it in time. With or without the word, it was an impassioned speech: “For you young artists who have courage to stand up against the machine, be yourself, work hard and one day you can stand up here and tell all the haters to …” Well, you can fill in the blank. The audience responded with a gasp that quickly turned to cheers. Fellow iconoclast Brandi Carlile and her bandmates, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, were the most effusive, leaping to their feet and pumping their arms at the pronouncement.

Zac Brown of Zac Brown Band CMT Music Awards
Zac Brown.
| Credit: Mike Coppola/Getty

FINISHING TOUCH: Here’s just one reason that Keith Urban is the reigning CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year: When all the other performers made a beeline for the door at the end of the show, Urban was the only one who lingered, kneeling to reach the fans in the pit. For several minutes, he shook hands, took selfies, signed autographs (on a cowboy hat, jacket, purse, cell-phone cases and pingpong balls from Midland’s beer-pong antics with Little Big Town) before he disappeared up the arena steps.