The artists who represented well modern country over the past 12 months were honored Wednesday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center as part of CMT’s 2021 Artists of the Year.

After highlighting front-line workers amid COVID-19 in 2020, the spotlight returned to the artists in a big way.

Breakout Artist of the Year:

Mickey Guyton

African American country artists such as Mickey Guyton and Kane Brown made waves in the industry during a time of social reform.

Guyton made race a centerpiece of her long-awaited debut full-length album, “Remember Her Name,” which features “Black Like Me.” The song made Guyton the first Black woman to be nominated for a solo country Grammy.

“There are so many Black people that love country music and can sing it better than I could ever sing it,” Guyton said. “For me it’s important for me use my platform to lift up those artists and, in turn, the genre will be more inclusive.”

Guyton performed her powerful anthem “Remember Her Name” alongside Yola.

“When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window, and in my case he shattered a whole glass ceiling,” Guyton said before addressing all marginalized groups. “I’m here for you, I am my sister’s keeper.

Artist of the Year:

Kane Brown

Kane Brown was similarly inspired to write the latest of his five No. 1 singles in five years, “Worldwide Beautiful,” while dabbling in genre crossovers and pure country.

“I would describe the song as a hopefully peaceful, heartwarming, loving song of bringing people together and trying to bring love back in the world,” Brown said. “We all look different, but we should all be equal and everybody should love each other.”

Brown shouted out his late drummer Kenny Dixon, who died in an automobile accident southeast of Nashville in 2019, during his speech.

Artist of a Lifetime:

Randy Travis

Another of the night’s most touching moments came when Garth Brooks honored seven-time Grammy Award winner Randy Travis with CMT’s Artist of a Lifetime Award.

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Randy Travis single-handedly saved country music,” Brooks said.

Travis had a near-fatal stroke that left him unable to perform in 2013.

“To think you receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for sharing your heart with the world through music is really beyond words of gratitude,” Travis wrote.

He received a standing ovation as he took the stage with his wife.

“The stroke may have taken the voice, but it didn’t take the man, and it didn’t take the heart,” Mary Davis said. “And you know what else? It didn’t take the music. We’ll have that forever and ever, amen.”

After some teleprompter issues with song introducer Nelly, Brown performed “Three Wooden Crosses” in Travis’ honor.

The Country Music Hall of Famer joins previous Lifetime Achievement Award recipients Reba McEntire, Loretta Lynn, Shania Twain, Kenny Rogers and Merle Haggard.

Artist of the Year:

Chris Stapleton

Stapleton’s 2020 album, “Starting Over,” reached No. 1 on the country charts and was named Album of the Year at the 2021 ACMs.

“Music is the win for me. When a song or something that we’ve played or sang gains meaning because it moved somebody, that’s the win, that’s the only win,” Stapleton said.

Boyz II Men performed a progressive R&B version of Stapleton’s “Cold” after Stapleton requested an artist cover one of his songs.

“I feel a lot of love in the room tonight,” Stapleton said. “That’s what music’s about. It’s about love.”

Artist of the Year:

Gabby Barrett

Fresh off a 2021 ACM New Female Artist of the Year award, Barrett rode the strength of the quintuple platinum “I Hope” and No. 1 “The Good Ones.”

Barrett performed the tenderhearted ballad from the aptly titled “Goldmine” on the night.

“This road has not been easy for me. It’s definitely been very difficult. I’ve gotten a lot of doors that have just been closed,” Barrett said. “But by the grace of God, my family, a wonderful supportive system and team, they’ve pushed me to never give up.”

Artist of the Year:

Luke Combs

Combs’ November 2019 album, “What You See is What You Get,” saw one of the genre’s hottest artists catch fire again with six No. 1’s.

“Music was always a place I could go to escape. I wanted to be able to give that to somebody else,” Combs said. “People need music right now more than they ever have.”

Combs led off the performances with a raspy rendition of his “Forever After All.”

Moments later, Eric Church spoke on Combs’ success.

“Here’s what I admire most,” Church said. “It hasn’t changed him one bit ... pure and simple. Luke Combs’ life and work are honest and sincere as the day is North Carolina long.”

Combs took the stage to accept his award and offered up a glimpse of that humble spirit.

“This is for the fans, this is for country music, this is for everybody. I love you guys,” Combs said.

Artist of the Year:

Kelsea Ballerini

Ballerini’s hits include “Hole in the Bottle” from her March 2020 release “Kelsea,” but there was also the Kenny Chesney duet “Half of My Hometown,” which highlighted her complicated yet loving relationship with her native Knoxville.

“She never stops amazing me with her ability to communicate what’s on her heart,” said husband Morgan Evans.

Ballerini could not be at the ceremony due to touring commitments with the Jonas Brothers, but she and the boy band cut in from Raleigh, North Carolina, with a high-octane performance of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

The Jonas Brothers presented her with her trophy on stage.

“What I’ve learned and what I’m learning is to loosen up my grip on what I think I want and just be here,” Ballerini said.