The Aussie superstar joined Old Dominion, Maren Morris, Sam Hunt, Lee Brice, Carly Pearce and more for a night of greatest hits and brand-new music

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ACM Party for a Cause
Credit: Mickey Bernal/FilmMagic

Over the past couple of months, the top country acts have been making their way back to the live stage, but Keith Urban has been notably absent — until Tuesday night in Nashville. And the 53-year-old hitmaker made sure his entrance was a memorable one.

Surprisingly guitar-less, he simply walked out to the lip of the Ascend Amphitheater stage, dropped to his knees, soaked in the audience, tapped his heart and beamed.

"Real people!" he finally exclaimed. The sellout crowd, no doubt confirming his observation, responded with a roar.

"It's the most amazing feeling being back on the live stage," Urban added. "This is my first time since February last year."

What drew the multi-platinum artist back to his favorite stomping ground was the ACM Party for a Cause concert, the usually annual benefit held in Las Vegas during the week of the ACM Awards. But as with most things pandemically, the event re-emerged after a 2020 hiatus a little bit different this year, moving to Nashville the week of the ACM Honors, the organization's night to salute special award recipients and off-camera category winners.

Urban offered the grand finale to a star-packed evening featuring 10 acts, including Old Dominion, Sam Hunt, Maren Morris, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Brice and Carly Pearce. On an already steamy evening, they heated up the stage for more than two-and-a-half hours with a combination of greatest hits and brand-new music.

ACM Party for a Cause
Credit: Mickey Bernal/FilmMagic

Strapping on a guitar, Urban kicked off his three-song set with "Wild Hearts," a single released less than a week ago, after introducing it as "a song for all the drifters and the dreamers in the audience tonight. It's a song for every one of you that is being told, 'you can't do what you want to do,' 'you can't follow your dreams,' 'you'll never make it,' 'you've got no hope.' This song is kind of a middle finger to all those people!"

Urban went on to reveal the real-life episode that inspired him to write the song's first verse: "Saw the Man in Black / spotlight in the air / Heard a thousand screams / I saw my daddy stare."

Growing up in Australia, he explained, his first memory of a major country music show was made at age 5 when his family attended a Johnny Cash concert.

"The thing I noticed was when this guy walked out on stage with a guitar, this crowd was screaming and going crazy," he recalled, "and when he picked up the guitar and started playing, it went real quiet. And I was mesmerized. And then I looked up at my dad, and I saw him staring at this guy in a way that I had never seen him look at me.

"And I went, I want to do that," he said, pointing out toward that remembered stage.

RELATED VIDEO: Keith Urban Says His 'Strangest' Gig Was Playing on Top of Baggage Carousel at 'Tiny' Australian Airport

The recorded version of the song is a pop-rock confection, but on this night, Urban performed it solo on acoustic guitar, transforming it into a vibrant anthem. Plugging in for the remainder of his set, Urban turned in scorching versions of signature hits "Blue Ain't Your Color" and "Wasted Time," capping the latter with a euphoric jam session with house band Sixwire's lead guitarist, Andy Childs.

The rest of the lineup treated the audience with so many other songs that were just easy to sing along to.

In Maren Morris' first return to a Nashville stage in two years, the reigning female artist of the year sang the ACM song of the year, "The Bones." She then launched into breakthrough hit, "My Church" — delivering the first verse with gospel fervor — and completed her set with husband Ryan Hurd on their chart-climbing single, "Chasing After You."

ACM Party for a Cause
Credit: Mickey Bernal/FilmMagic

Morris revealed that the couple had brought along their 17-month-old son, Hayes, playfully warning the sellout crowd, "Y'all don't be shocked if my toddler comes running out here. He's tried to make a run for it a couple of times. Apparently, he feels very comfortable on the stage!"

Sam Hunt performed his latest hit, "Breaking Up Was Easy in the '90s," and he announced new music is on its way next month, perhaps including "Came the Closest," a heartbreaker he performed for the first time in his three-song set. He capped his stage appearance with one of the night's loudest sing-alongs to — natch — "Body Like a Back Road."

Basking in the acclaim for her most recent project, 29, Carly Pearce offered two of its cuts, current radio single, "Next Girl," and what she called "one of my absolute favorites from the EP," "Should've Known Better." (The full-length album, 29: Written in Stone, is due for release Sept. 17.)

Pearce then brought out Lee Brice for a rare live performance of their smash, "I Hope You're Happy Now," the 2021 ACM music event and single of the year.

ACM Party for a Cause
Credit: Mickey Bernal/FilmMagic

"The last time we sang together was at the ACMs when we won!" she told Brice in her introduction.

After Pearce's turn, Brice stayed on stage to torch it up with "Soul," a recent release that he hinted may be his new radio single. He completed his set with "Memory I Don't Mess With" and a heart-wrenching delivery of his 2014 ACM song of the year, "I Drive Your Truck."

Trisha Yearwood offered up two more all-time favorites, "Walkaway Joe" and "She's in Love With the Boy," recently ranked as the most-listened-to country song by a female artist over the past three decades.

Brett Eldredge showcased his exquisite pipes with a solo acoustic version of "The Long Way," drew from critically acclaimed album Sunday Drive for "Good Day" (his latest radio single) and finished with one of his chart-toppers, "Drunk on Your Love."

In advance of her highly anticipated debut album — out Sept. 24 — Mickey Guyton previewed three of its songs, title track "Remember Her Name," "Lay It on Me" and "All American." And 2020 ACM new female artist Tenille Townes opened the evening with her new single, "Girl Who Didn't Care," and breakthrough song "Somebody's Daughter."

The sole group on the lineup, Old Dominion delighted the audience with three of their No. 1s, "One Man Band," "Hotel Key" and "Make It Sweet." Judging from the exuberant crowd reaction, their newest single, "I Was on a Boat That Day," may soon be joining that exclusive club. The band rounded out their five-song set with an appearance by vocal powerhouse Caitlyn Smith, who performed their recent collaboration, "I Can't."

"There's nothing better than live music," lead singer Matthew Ramsey effused between songs, summing up the vibe of the entire night — before adding, "except live music for a good cause."

All proceeds from the concerts will go to ACM Lifting Lives, the charitable arm of the industry organization that supports a variety of causes, including music therapy, veterans' services and children's healthcare. Since April 2020, the charity also has offered significant support to workers in the country music community affected by the shutdown of live music.