The first note of the night for the 2018 CMA Awards, the 52nd, by chronology, was a somber one. Garth Brooks opened the evening before a black screen, bearing the names of the victims in the Borderline shooting in Thousand Oaks. No one with a heart could help but be haunted by the reality that last year’s 2017 CMA Awards compelled honor, action, and comfort by another horrific shooting, in Las Vegas. The measure of devastation for so many lives, friends, and families is incalculable, and this year, the Country Music world presented a united decision to celebrate the music that rings from the heart, filled with true stories of life.

The appropriate solemnity was shattered by Luke Bryan and an all-star lineup on “What Makes You Country.“ The opening performance crossed all generations, including ladies and gentlemen, young and old.

Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood took the hosting helm for the 11th time, and this time, the expectant mom became central to the playful gags. In his own version of the outlaw game, Brad questioned whether the bun in the oven was “Waylon or Willie” and Carrie finally conceded, “It's a Willie!” Paisley pulled in Carrie’s hubby, Mike Fisher, too, sitting in the audience, saying “we're pulling for you” as the dad, Young yodeling wonder, Mason Ramsey, was enlisted as Underwood’s older son, which she quickly squashed in their playful song.

Brad Paisley then proposed a new business venture-- a combination bar and daycare, named “Whiskey Lullaby.” That proposal was plenty, considering all the awards and salutes still to come. Carrie Underwood did use the opportunity to make a point that men are the ones doing the major share of the chart-climbing and trophy honors, while female artists continue to do exceptional work.

She would take top honors as Female Vocalist by the end of the night, with Kacey Musgraves carving out more creative greatness with Album of the Year for “Golden Hour.”

Honoring the masters

One major reason that country music continues to become the most listened-to genre worldwide is that it honors the sense of legacy. New artists flow in and out from radio playlists, and some, like Lauren Alaina, take a long while on a “Road Less Traveled,” but masters like Ricky Skaggs never lose their luster.

The bluegrass legend was officially inducted Into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in October, and this ceremony provided an opportunity to celebrate his lifelong as performer, musician, and songwriter.

Skaggs fronted his renowned bluegrass band, Kentucky Thunder, with “Black Eyed Suzie.” Initially, only the close-knit family circle of Ricky Skaggs stood, stomped and clapped along, but in less than a few minutes, the full auditorium was on its feet and joining in the songs set to flying strings. Skaggs strolled to another stage, singing “Highway 40 Blues,” accompanied by Keith Urban. The Larry Cordle classic became a chart-topper for Ricky Skaggs in 1983. Taking his guitar, Skaggs and company closed with a blazing performance of “Country Boy,” that had Brad Paisley, Marty Stuart, mandolin prodigy, Sierra Hall, banjo player, Justin Moses, and fiddle player, Carson Peters, each stealing the spotlight.

Absolute musicianship shines in a bluegrass band at its best, and no electronic wizardry or Auto-Tune is needed.

The Skaggs family was not alone in having overflowing emotions through the evening.

Wives win acclaim

Carrie Underwood obliged Brad Paisley's request to give a bubble-wrap dress a try, but the petite blonde looked maternal and magnificent in her royal blue gown for her performance of the assuring ballad, “Love Wins,” which she co-wrote with Brett James and David Garcia. The sentiment of the song spread like the folds in the dress, filled with color.

Kelsea Ballerini wowed the crowd with her production number of “Miss Me More” complete with Beyoncé-esque chair routines, but when Garth Brooks came out to offer a new song to his wife, Trisha Yearwood, an awestruck silence fell.

Stronger Than Me” chronicles a lifelong love together, even coming down to the wish that “you go before me” because she is “stronger than me.” Sometimes, a single performer, strumming simple chords to heartfelt words, conveys more power than any pyrotechnics.

Chris Stapleton took big wins for the song, “Broken Halos” as Single and Song of the Year, and as Male Vocalist of the Year. Mavis Staples was nothing short of a force of nature joining the songwriter and Maren Morris for a session of song that was an affirmation of humanity.

In Chris Stapleton's words to his wife, Morgane, he proved his powerful devotion, detailing that no matter how rewarded his work is, it pulls him away from being a husband and a father.

Stapleton celebrated his wife's guidance in “showing me how to be and what to do.” His gratitude echoed with the soulful honesty of his songs, as he noted that he and Morgane have another child on the way.

For only the second time, Keith Urban garnered the night’s top trophy of respect as Entertainer of the Year. The phenomenal guitarist was caught completely by surprise, and it showed. His wife, the actress, Nicole Kidman, wrapped him in a tender and long embrace, stroking his back as she whispered to him. His first words of gratitude were to God, “for the blessing of all this” to the admittedly “shocked beyond shocked” artist in tears. He called Nicole his “baby girl” thanking her and their daughters, and offered that even though he wished his father were alive to see the moment, he knew that his dad was “watching over this.”

May country music never lose this authentic kind of heart. It matters more to history than a catalog of hits.