CMT's Artists of the Year event is a bit like an intimate awards show, minus all the pesky anticipation and stress of not knowing who's going win. The 2015 installment — held December 2nd at Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center — honored the five Artists of the Year: Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Little Big Town, Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt; plus special award recipients Chris Stapleton, Kenny Rogers and the cast of ABC's Nashville. Thus the atmosphere was unmistakably celebratory and relaxed, making for standout performances around two of the year's most unlikely (but welcome) success stories.
Related: 2015 CMA Awards: 12 Best and Worst Moments
Chris Stapleton, enjoying a victory lap after his recent CMA Awards takeover, was honored with the Breakout Artist award by presenter Lee Ann Womack. Stapleton chose to sing the outlaw-flavored "Nobody to Blame," the new single from his album Traveller and marshaled some all-star firepower from harp player Mickey Raphael, steel player Robby Turner and Traveller producer Dave Cobb. Long revered for his vocal gifts, Stapleton made the bruised howls on "Nobody to Blame" seem remarkably effortless. It's no wonder that Stapleton's friends like Luke Bryan have sung his praises for years and drafted him to perform alongside them.
"You hear a voice every now and then that the world needs to hear, that people need to hear," Bryan told Rolling Stone Country of Stapleton on the AOTY red carpet. "I think the whole Nashville community was just rooting for him for so many years and the fact that he had that kind of coming-out party on the CMAs was validation. It's fun when the whole town is rallying for somebody and it happens."
Little Big Town have felt similar support from the community, gradually accumulating wins until the controversial (but not really) single "Girl Crush" blew up to set a record on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart earlier this year. Sadly, only Phillip Sweet and Kimberly Schlapman could attend as Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild were visiting with family following the death of Westbrook's sister. Schlapman dedicated their award to her memory.
Honoring the quartet with a VH1 Divas-worthy performance of "Girl Crush" were two pop stars, American Idol alum Adam Lambert and U.K. X Factor champ Leona Lewis (watch the performance below). Lambert's soaring tenor ably handled Fairchild's parts, adding a gender-bent element to a song that felt some pushback over its perceived glorification of same-sex relationships. Lewis took it ever upward with her Mariah Carey-sized vocal range, and the two let it rip as the song reached its frustrated climax.
Additionally, the cast of ABC's Nashville was presented with the International Impact honor for the show's role in expanding overseas appreciation of Music City. Legendary broadcast journalist Dan Rather was also in the house, presenting the Artist of a Lifetime honor to Kenny Rogers.
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