Country star Kane Brown, unabashedly distraught over the death of his touring drummer Kenny Dixon just four days earlier in a car accident, dedicated his “CMT Artists of the Year” award to Dixon in a heart-rending appearance on the telecast Wednesday night.
Brown ceded the performance slot he would have been allowed to friend Chris Young, who followed Brown’s speech with a song he had written for a friend who also died in an automobile accident, “Drowning,” which had just been released as a single in June. Young kept up a stoic demeanor during his performance, but the emotion he was feeling was evident from the hasty retreat he made from the microphone as soon as he had finished the song’s final line.
“Whoo,” Brown kept repeating, quietly and nervously, as he anxiously thumbed the corner of his trophy while choking up on the stage of Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center during the live telecast. “I want to dedicate this to my drummer Kenny. He started with me coming out of Chattanooga off Facebook. People didn’t think we would make it. He was with me the whole time. He was so supportive of me. I love you, man, I miss you. The band misses you. … I love the country community, and God bless you guys. Stay safe. I love y’all.”
Said Young, “A lot of us can’t even imagine what he’s going through, but right now he really felt it was really important to be here tonight. … I wrote this song for a friend of mine that passed away too soon in a car accident. So I kind of empathize with Kane and what he’s going through, and I really appreciate him allowing me to stand up here tonight and sing this in honor of his friend Kenny.”
“Drowning” had Young singing a verse about calling his friend’s cell phone after his death “just to hear you say ‘Leave a message’,” before a chorus that says, “I gotta say, missing you comes in waves, and tonight I’m drowning.”
“Kane’s speech, man — I don’t even know if Kane’s here anymore, but I just want to lift up Kane and his family and I want to live up his drummer and his family. i don’t know if this is very conventional, but can I just pray really fast? Is it okay with everybody? Father God, we love you so much. Loss is something we can’t comprehend, and so right now I pray that you would be with Kane and his family and his drummer Kenny and his family, and bring them peace that only you know how to bring somebody.”
Brown won’t be making all his scheduled appearances in what was due to be one of the most celebratory weeks in his young career. He was scheduled for a sold-out headlining appearance at L.A.’s Staples Center Friday, but quickly postponed that show after news of Dixon’s death broke. (The rescheduled L.A. date is January 9, 2020.)
Dixon’s death was not the only one being mourned on the show. Jay Frank, who was a senior VP of music strategy for CMT in the late 2000s, passed away from cancer Sunday, and he was quietly memorialized with an end card at the very close of the telecast.
There were some happy tears during the show, too, as Rhett mentioned that he had also become tearful watching Ashley McBryde accept her honor for new artist of the year.
The more celebratory aspects had Artist of the Year honors going to Dan + Shay, Luke Combs and Carrie Underwood as well as Brown and Rhett. “This Is Us” star Chrissy Metz paid tribute to Combs by singing his latest single, “Even Though I’m Leaving.”
Reba McEntire was honored as Artist of a Lifetime, with musical tributes from Lady Antebellum, who sang “Is There Life Out There,” and Sam Hunt, who closed the telecast by covering “Fancy.”
Vince Gill introduced McEntire with a speech that included laughs and a hint of poignance. “They have a teleprompter but I can’t really read from that,” he said. “It’s too far away, and it’s not from my heart. I have to speak from my heart when I talk about this woman.” Noting that he had graduated from being a session guitarist and singer for Reba early in his career to her official duet partner, Gill said, “I’m still pissed about ‘The Heart Won’t Lie,’ because I had to do the video as a Marine, and they said I was the fattest Marine in history.”
More seriously, Gill said, “As friends, we’ve gone through divorces together; we’ve gone through deaths of the members our family; we’ve gone through the deaths of the members of our road family. We’ve shared it all, and when the chips were down, that was the friend right there that I could always count on.”
“Thomas Rhett, God bless you for praying for us,” McEntire said in her speech. “You’re special. … You said that might not be aired on this, but he knows, it better be aired. It better make the cut. Because that’s what we need in life, a little bit more God. We’ve got to give this world back to God. We’ve got to give him the focus and attention that he needs.” (The show went out live, so there was little danger of the prayer being cut, and it indeed showed up on the re-broadast.)