The Grammy winner and best-selling country star took the stage at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and delivered a heartfelt speech while accepting the well-deserved honour.
“I’ve been in this business for 43 years, and I’ve loved every – nope, almost every minute of it,” McEntire said, with a small laugh, before thanking all the people who have helped her, guided her and taught her over the course of her incomparable career.
“That’s what this business is all about: the people we get to learn from and get to know. I’m very blessed to have so many friends.”
McEntire was brought to tears as she shared a special message with one of the night’s other honorees, Thomas Rhett, who used part of his time on stage to openly pray for Kane Brown and Brown’s drummer, Kenny Dixon.
Brown openly cried during his acceptance speech earlier in the evening, and dedicated his award to Dixon, who died on Saturday in a tragic car accident at the age of 27. Rhett, in turn, prayed for peace for both Dixon and Kane, and the genuine gesture hit McEntire in a deep and emotional way,
“Thomas Rhett, God bless you for praying in front [of everyone],” McEntire said, fighting back tears. “You’re special. You’re special. That took guts.”
McEntire ended her speech with a smile, telling the audience, “I love this business, I love country music, it’s fun. I love the competition. And I love y’all. I love my family, my friends, and y’all are super. Thank you so much!”
The country icon also spoke with ET on the red carpet ahead before the big night and she opened up about how if felt to be honoured by CMT and supported by so many fellow musicians.
“There are so many people in this business that I look up to, admire, adore,” McEntire gushed, adding that getting chosen for the honour was “very sweet.”
McEntire admitted that, when she first found out she’d be getting the Artist of a Lifetime award her first reaction was stunned amazement and a little confusion.
“I was asking, ‘Why?'” McEntire recalled with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ It was kind of mind boggling.”
During the show, McEntire, and the CMT Artist of the Year audience, also got a special performance from Sam Hunt, who serenaded the country queen with a cover of her 1991 hit single “Fancy.”
ET spoke with Hunt before the big show, during rehearsals, and the singer praised McEntire’s impact and legacy on the genre.
“She belongs on the country music Mount Rushmore,” Hunt marvelled. “I’ve always been a big fan of hers.”
Check out the video below for more on this year’s emotional, powerful CMT Artist of the Year Event.