By Sarah Rodman
October 18, 2018 at 04:49 PM EDT

Near the end of the brief but immensely moving 2018 CMT Artists of the Year telecast Wednesday night from the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town crystallized the evening’s sentiment simply by reading a list.

Holding her trophy in one hand and her phone in the other, Fairchild powered through a list of nearly three dozen artists, many of them newer or emerging acts, that country radio programmers are playing sparingly or ignoring outright due to, at best, flawed research. The list represented a spectrum of acts from pop country to Americana, and included justifiably critically acclaimed names like Ashley McBryde, Margo Price, Mickey Guyton, and Lucie Silvas.

It was one of several moments during a night meant to celebrate women — it was the first time the ceremony had an all-female lineup of honorees — that those being feted took the opportunity to extend their own hands. (It is worth noting that last year’s ceremony featured an all-male slate.)

Each of the honorees — Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Miranda Lambert, Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum, and Fairchild and bandmate Kimberly Schlapman — thanked CMT for its efforts in promoting female artists and talked about the women that came before them who served as inspiration.

One of those women, Loretta Lynn, could not attend to receive her Artist of a Lifetime award; as presenter Sissy Spacek put it, the country legend was feeling under the weather. But the woman who won an Oscar for playing Lynn noted that she had seen the Country Music Hall of Famer earlier in the day and she had even offered one of her own gowns to Spacek to wear, which caused the actress to choke up as she spoke of what a good friend Lynn has been to her. Spacek closed her speech by quoting Lynn herself: “It’s about dadgum time we recognized women.”

Underwood used part of her speech to shout out all the other women working in the country music industry — from executives to musicians to hair and makeup artists — who help keep the wheels turning, and noted to her fellow honorees, “You are not here because you are women; you are here because you’re dang good.”

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They proved just that in the night’s standout performances: Fairchild and Schlapman teamed with an ageless Gladys Knight for runs through Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”; Pistol Annies (Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley) kicked things off with the kicky “Sugar Daddy”; Morris and Brandi Carlile tipped their caps to the late Aretha Franklin with a heartfelt rendition of  “(You Make Me a Feel Like) A Natural Woman”; and Underwood, with help from Maddie & Tae and Runaway June, brought things to a close with a power medley of songs by forebears like Reba McEntire, Tammy Wynette, Shania Twain, and the Judds.

John Shearer/Getty Images

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