If you were in front of your TV on Wednesday night, you had the best seat in the house for the CMA Awards. But there was still another show going on inside Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, and PEOPLE was there to report on what you didn’t see on TV:
OVERCOME: From her front-row seat, Brandi Johnson watched her superstar husband, Cody Johnson, sing “The Painter,” the touching love song that the artist has dedicated to his wife of 14 years. If that wasn’t enough to stir her emotions, he delivered the heart-tugger in front of a giant backdrop of Brandi’s image. At the song’s finish, cameras caught her dry-eyed and grinning with pride. So how did she hold it all together? She didn’t. Moments later, during the commercial break, she was spotted out of her seat, trying unsuccessfully to stop the tears, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue and heading toward an exit — perhaps seeking a moment to collect herself.
FAST FRIENDS: A month ago, in an LA Times interview, Jelly Roll expressed an interest in meeting fellow country sensation Zach Bryan, and Wednesday night, he apparently got his wish as the two men were seated next to each other for the show. Throughout the evening, they could be seen avidly chatting, bobbing their heads in tandem to the performances, and when the time came for their category — new artist of the year — to be announced, they each swung a supportive arm around the other’s shoulder. When Jelly Roll’s name was called, cameras caught Bryan getting a firm hand clasp, a warm hug and whispered words from his new friend.
PRIORITIES: On the red carpet, Maddie Marlow Font and Tae Dye Kerr, aka Maddie & Tae, talked about their life as new moms and how they’re quickly learning to balance work and family life. “Trying to do it all,” Font admitted, “is too much.” During the show, the 10-time nominees for CMA duo of the year were true to their word. Soon after they watched the Brothers Osborne win their category — and less than two hours into the three-hour show — the duo and their husbands discreetly headed out the door, no doubt beelining home to spell their children’s sitters. Maddie and Jonah Font’s son, Forrest, was born Sept. 9, and Tae and Josh Kerr’s daughter, Leighton, will turn 2 in January.
MEET AND GREET: What happens during commercial breaks? Party time! More often than not, the stars are out of their seats and schmoozing. Among the notable socializing going on: Post Malone kibbitzing with Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman; presenter Paula Abdul chatting with Zac Brown; Shay Mooney introducing himself to comedian Nate Bargatze; husband and wife Michael and Tanya Trotter (aka The War and Treaty) accepting a hearty handshake from Cole Swindell after their fiery performance; and the Brothers Osborne genuflecting before country music royalty, new Hall of Famer Patty Loveless.
A GOOD SIGN: CMA female artist of the year nominee Ashley McBryde has been learning American sign language in her spare time, with a goal of someday singing her hit single “Light on in the Kitchen” onstage. After she performed the song at the CMAs, she tried out one familiar and poignant gesture. Though the stage went too dark for cameras to pick it up, in the arena McBryde could clearly be seen signing “thank you” to the crowd.
SPOUSAL SUPPORT: Cameras caught Luke Combs’ wife, Nicole, standing (along with seatmate McBryde) through Combs’ entire performance of “Where the Wild Things Are.” But they missed another sweet supportive moment: Dan Smyers’ wife, Abby, and Shay Mooney’s wife, Hannah, formed their own duo in the audience, standing, pumping their arms in the air and singing along with every word of Dan + Shay’s “Save Me the Trouble.”
CHEAT SHEET: During their opening dialogue, Luke Bryan tested co-host Peyton Manning on his knowledge of country songs, and the former NFL star aced the lyrics on “The Gambler” and “Friends in Low Places,” but he was never going to muff them: The lyrics were clearly printed on a nearby teleprompter. To his credit, though, Manning’s eyes never strayed in that direction. (That teleprompter turned pesky for the award recipients as it counted down, second by excruciating second, exactly one minute for the acceptance speeches.)
FAN FAVORITE: HARDY and Morgan Wallen made a quick exit after performing Joe Diffie’s country classics, “John Deere Green” and “Pickup Man.” But their rap-artist collaborator, Post Malone — no doubt sensing he’d found some rabid fans in this country crowd — stuck around to slap hands, making a complete pass around the satellite stage.
THE ALSO-RANS: Chris Stapleton took home the prize for male vocalist of the year, but his fellow nominees were hardly left to lick their wounds. While Jelly Roll bolted off to get ready for his show-closing performance, Wallen, Johnson and Combs huddled together laughing and bantering for the entire commercial break as Brandi Johnson and Nicole Combs happily chatted nearby.
HELLO, DARKNESS: When Jordan Davis sang his latest chart-topper, “Next Thing You Know,” cell phones splashed constellations of light around the arena. But did the artists themselves get caught up in this popular expression of fandom? Um, nope. Not a dot of light to be seen in the celeb section.
HIDDEN GEM IN PLAIN SIGHT: A delightful bit of history, unannounced to the audience, shared the stage with Tanya Tucker during her performance of signature song, “Delta Dawn,” with Little Big Town. If those harmonica riffs sounded familiar, there was a reason: That was Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy providing them. He played on Tucker’s original 1972 recording.
THE ROAR OF THE CROWD: Jelly Roll’s revival-style speech, as he accepted his new artist of the year award, so stirred the crowd that their cheers completely drowned him out inside the arena. So, for the 16,000+ audience members who couldn’t make out a word (and didn’t set their DVRs to watch the show later), here’s what he said: “I don’t know where you’re at in your life or what you’re going through, but I want to tell you to keep going, baby. I want to tell you that success is on the other side of it. I want to tell you it’s gonna be okay. I want to tell you that the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror for a reason, because what’s in front of you is so much more important than what’s behind you! Let’s party, Nashville!”
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