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Brandi Carlile, Kelsea Ballerini and Others Salute Unheralded Helpers on ‘CMT Celebrates Our Heroes’

In a pre-pandemic world, tonight CMT would have held its annual CMT Music Awards. But with most people still sheltering in place and the country still struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19, CMT postponed the show to Oct. 14.

Instead, the cable music outlet pivoted to CMT Celebrates Our Heroes: An Artists of the Year Special. Simulcast also on Paramount Network, TV Land and Pop TV, the two-hour special featured country artists saluting the now-familiar undeniably deserving heroes, such as frontline medical workers, and the less obvious, including farmers, truckers, grocery store workers, the military and other unheralded groups who have risen to the occasion.

To CMT’s credit, it took what has now become a standard and somewhat predictable pandemic exercise featuring artists earnestly performing from their homes — whether it be iHeart’s Living Room Concert for America or the Jersey 4 Jersey benefit — and managed to tailor it for the country music audience. CMT Celebrates Our Heroes leaned heavily on middle America — and middle class — appeal, saluting postal service workers, bus drivers, teachers, sanitation workers and the folks who have gone to their jobs every day, including energy infrastructure workers, so most of us can stay safe.

Assembled largely before George Floyd’s death at the hands (and knees) of four Minneapolis police officers and the ongoing protests in more than 100 cities across the country, the special acknowledged the current strife with words on the screen as the event opened: “As social unrest grips the nation, we want to say thank you to those taking action against injustice.”

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Here are five of the most stirring moments.

Brandi Carlile pays tribute to mom and dad

Country music is all about family and in her segment, Carlile, flanked by bandmates and twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth—it turns out they are all quarantining together—saluted parents and spoke for everyone who has not been able to see their mom or dad during the shut down. “We wanted to [perform] a song for our heroes, our folks,” she said, before playing “Most of All,” a track from her Grammy-winning album By the Way, I Forgive You. Like so many songs performed during the night, even though it was written long before the pandemic, the words took on a new meaning, as she sang about remembering her father’s advice about the love that comes back to you when you give love away.

Thomas Rhett shines brightly

Rhett’s inspiring current chart climber “Be a Light” features Keith Urban, Reba McEntire, Hillary Scott and Chris Tomlin. But tonight, Rhett, in a salute to teachers, delivered a subtle, heartwarming version accompanied only by his band. The unadorned take allowed the words to take center stage. While the evening was about the pandemic, with lyrics “In a world full of hate, be a light” and “in a place that needs a change make a difference,” the song unintentionally addressed the protests as well.

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Sam Hunt channels the Boss

After Kristen Bell introduced a taped segment saluting infrastructure heroes, Hunt, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Jack of All Trades.” In his voluminous canon of songs saluting blue collar workers, Springsteen’s tune, featured on 2014’s Wrecking Ball, is an especially poignant tale of a worker looking for any kind of work from mowing lawns and harvesting crops to fixing engines to stay afloat as he attempts to convince his wife that things will be alright. It was a reminder of the devastating economic toll the pandemic has taken on millions as well.

Kelsea Ballerini soothes

Like Hunt (and Darius Rucker, who covered Randy Travis’s “Forever & Ever, Amen”), Ballerini turned to music made famous by another artist for her segment. She delivered a sweet version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” as a salute to kids and young adults who have stepped in to help, including a seven-year-old who has created a community food pantry, a teen who is making masks for frontline workers, and a boy scout making 3D ear protectors. “I want to honor all the youth and kids who have …stepped up and been wonderful and bold,” she said.

Kane Brown takes us home

To close the evening, Brown paid tribute to the food industry — from restaurant staffers, restaurant workers, truckers, farmers and more — with a moving version of the classic “Stand By Me.” Brown continues to impress with his vocals and he ended the show on a unifying note through his graceful, R&B-tinged delivery.

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