Amid a year rife with tragedy and division, the 2017 CMA Awards was a show of music unity, from the feel-good opening number — an all-star rendition of Hootie and the Blowfish’s “Hold My Hand” — to the night’s speeches: “I feel like we’re bonded together and banded together more than we ever have been,” Miranda Lambert told the crowd as she picked up her female vocalist trophy.
But behind the scenes, the country love fest seemed even cozier.
Tim McGraw and Faith Hill made slow progress back to their front-row seats after singing in the opener because of the number of hugs they gave and received on their way from stage to the floor. (Keith Urban later briefly stole Tim’s seat, jokingly brushing him off so he could be closer to Faith.) Chris Stapleton, meanwhile, sat front and center nearly all night — and throughout the commercial breaks everyone from Luke Bryan and Darius Rucker to Eric Church paid their respects to the singer and his pregnant wife Morgane with warm hugs.
Fellow expectant mom Hillary Scott rubbed her growing belly during a commercial break, while bandmate Charles Kelley showed off some impressive seat dancing moves during Brothers Osborne’s performance of “It Ain’t My Fault.”
During a break, Kimberly Williams Paisley was the first up to congratulate single of the year winner Urban with a squeeze, but Garth Brooks had already been doling out hearty embraces on the red carpet, notably to a thrilled Midland. The trio’s lead singer Mark Wystrach had earlier told PEOPLE that a “high point of the year” was the moment he heard Brooks heap praise upon the band in an interview.
Special guest Pink sat with daughter Willow in the audience, and when the singer went backstage to prepare for her performance of “Barbies,” she turned to the members of Little Big Town – who are all parents themselves — to keep an eye on Willow. The group happily fawned over the 6-year-old.
LBT also wrapped their arms around Angie Gentry, widow of Troy Gentry, and 15-year-old daughter Kaylee after Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts and Eddie Montgomery performed the Montgomery Gentry hit “My Town” in Troy’s honor. When Montgomery walked backstage, he was stopped several times for pats on the back.
Waiting on a B stage to begin his song “Ask Me How I Know,” Garth Brooks good-naturedly waved his arms and conducted the crowd as they sang along to wife Trisha Yearwood’s 1990 hit “She’s in Love With the Boy,” which was playing on the loudspeakers during the break. Kelley, a solo cup in hand, chatted with Yearwood as Brooks performed, and at one point the Lady A singer swayed her back and forth to the music.
Kelley was far from the only artist who took advantage of the backstage bar: Lambert returned during a commercial break sipping on a glass as she talked intently to pal Bentley and Thomas Rhett weaved his way through the crowd with a drink in each hand — until his record label president Scott Borchetta swiped a sip from one of his cups.
While wife Carrie Underwood kept the show running with co-host Brad Paisley, Mike Fisher seemed to enjoy the chance to sit in the audience at his first CMA Awards since retiring from the NHL earlier this year. The hockey star shook hands with several stars and sung along to Jon Pardi’s “Dirt on My Boots”.
Underwood’s performance of the traditional hymn “Softly and Tenderly” honoring those that died both in the country industry and in the Las Vegas shooting tragedy was one of the night’s most poignant moments. The singer wiped away tears after finishing her song, and then a team of helpers escorted her and her dramatic dress backstage.
Minutes before the night’s final award was announced, Brooks was canoodling with his wife in the front row, giving her a cuddle and a kiss after taking a selfie together. When his name was announced as Entertainer of the Year, he declared “We are a family.” And then, making it clear that he does play favorites in one special case, he added, “Ms. Yearwood, I am yours forever,” before heading backstage to be greeted with high fives and big hugs from his country brothers and sisters.
– With additional reporting done by NANCY KRUH and ANYA LEON