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Merle Haggard Receives Artist of a Lifetime Award at 2014 CMT Artists of the Year Ceremony

Merle Haggard
Terry Wyatt, Getty Images

Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center was filled to the brim with country stars for the 2014 CMT Artists of the Year ceremony on Tuesday evening (Dec. 2). It was an especially memorable event, as Merle Haggard received the first-ever Artist of a Lifetime Award and was honored by many country favorites throughout the evening.

A video featured country stars like Vince Gill, Miranda Lambert, Joe Nichols, Keith Urban, Wynonna Judd and more testifying to the singer-songwriter’s legendary status. Eric ChurchAshley Monroe and producer T Bone Burnett also performed Haggard’s hit ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ — a No. 1 single for him in 1969 — in a fitting tribute. The award was presented by Billy Bob Thornton, who also gave a heartfelt speech about his friend.

“I’d just like to add something to what they’ve got here,” Thornton said, “which is that I wouldn’t only include Merle Haggard in the greatest songwriters of all time. But I would put him up there alongside people like Tennessee Williams and William Faulker, Erskine Caldwell and John Steinbeck, because he is truly a storyteller.

“That’s something that has been lost over the years, and I’m glad to see that it is coming back a little bit,” he added. “And Merle Haggard personifies the storyteller.”

Haggard has experienced a magnificent career, and he kept his acceptance speech short and to the point. He looked spiffy in a fitted black suit and yellow rose boutonniere, saying, “Anything I’d say would be short of the mark, so thank you very much, and God bless you.”

As a final thought, he added, “Good music lives forever!”

While Haggard’s award was a highlight of the evening, there were other fantastic moments and performances during the show — and also some difficult, sobering ones. The five Artists of the Year, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban, were each honored with a trophy and hit the stage to show off their talents. Bryan’s absence due to the sudden death of his brother-in-law was felt profoundly, and throughout the evening, the other artists acknowledged their fellow country star and the hurt he is currently facing.

Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell backed Aldean with guitar and vocals on the country rocker’s new song ‘Just Gettin’ Started.’ Lambert gave her all in ‘Holding on to You,’ and she accepted her award by saying emotionally and through tears, “My husband, I always forget to thank him, but he’s my rock. Blake Shelton. He’s somewhere on TV right now.”

In Bryan’s absence, Lady Antebellum and Chris Stapleton sang ‘Drink a Beer.’ Bryan has been open about how much the song means to him, especially in light of the deaths of his two siblings, Chris and Kelly. Now, with the sudden passing of Kelly’s widowed husband Lee, the song was especially appropriate, heartbreaking and healing all at once.

“Family comes first, and sadly, Luke’s family faced a tragic loss this weekend with the death of his brother-in-law Lee,” Charles Kelley said before the performance. “So tonight, we wanted to perform a song that’s very special to Luke.”

To round out the performances, Florida Georgia Line played ‘Sun Daze,’ and Urban performed James Brown’s ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ with Cornell, backed by a 10-piece, all-female band, and gave another shoutout to Bryan.

“I want to send my love and prayers out to Luke, and all your family tonight too, brother. You’re right here tonight, brother,” Urban said, patting his heart.

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