2021 ACM Honors host Carly Pearce made quite a statement when she opened the Wednesday night (Aug. 25) awards show with her new song "Dear Miss Loretta," honoring ACM Poet's Award winner Loretta Lynn. It was the first highlight from a show at which many of the performers seemed to be saying, "You think that's good? Watch this."

Her recognizable twang ringing through the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, Pearce sang about the power of Lynn's songs, and Pearce's own lived experiences that helped her understand the pain and power in them. "She showed me how to be real and raw and unapologetically direct," Pearce said of Lynn while presenting the country icon with her honor.

Lynn, 89, was not at the event, but she sent an audio message and was reportedly watching from home. "I know that she's watching the livestream, so: Hi, Loretta!" Pearce offered to the camera, adding, "Never thought I'd be saying that!"

Ashley McBryde, too, needed only an acoustic guitar and the spotlight to command the night's crowd (though she'd later help close the show with an energetic cover of ACM Gene Weed Milestone Award winner Luke Combs' "She Got the Best of Me"). Paying tribute to Academy of Country Music Senior Vice President of Creative Lisa Lee — a fellow Arkansas native who died on Saturday (Aug. 21), at the age of 52, of brain cancer — the singer offered a heartfelt rendition of her song "Girl Goin' Nowhere" that had the audience cheering at just the right spot in each chorus.

"Three words: Ashley. Mc. Bryde," offered Keith Urban, pausing the opening chords of his song "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" to praise his fellow artist. He, too, accompanied himself on acoustic guitar for a spirited performance of that hit, honoring one of its writers, Ross Copperman, one of the night's ACM Gary Haber Lifting Lives Award winners.

It was, however, up-and-comer Brittney Spencer who offered the can't-miss performance of the night, in recognition of ACM Poet's Award winner Gretchen Peters. Backed by an ace house band led by guitarist Derek Wells, the singer-songwriter delivered a show-stopping, slowed-down version of "Independence Day," the Peters-penned song made famous by Martina McBride.

It was Spencer's first time on the Ryman stage, and it was a career-making moment. The audience was hollering for her by the first chorus and on their feet for a standing ovation at the last note.

"I was a fool to think I wouldn't cry," a visibly emotional and admittedly "overwhelmed" Peters offered from stage. "I really believe that songwriting is a calling, and what we do is much, much more than entertainment. At their best, song are empathy machines ... They tell us we're not alone. They connect us.

"Songs can literally change the world," Peters added. "And the world needs love and empathy more than it ever has."

The ACM Honors aren't fully focused on songs and their writers — the event includes awards for chart achievements, philanthropic endeavors, industry leaders and studio musicians — but on Wednesday night, Peters' words and the power of the songs were an unintentional recurring theme. When it was Dan + Shay's turn to receive the ACM Jim Reeves International Award, it was four songwriters who performed a medley of the duo's hits.

Between the four of them, Laura Veltz, Nicolle Galyon, Jordan Reynolds and Jessie Jo Dillon have co-writing credits on five of Dan + Shay's seven most recent singles, all of which topped the country radio charts. When they took the stage, after a round of hugs for each writer, Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney explained that the four songwriters were "the first people we thought of" when showrunners asked who the duo would like to have honor them during the event.

"Without the songwriters in this town," Smyers said, "we would have none of this."

Other award winners on Wednesday night included Rascal Flatts — curiously, without Gary LeVox in attendance — and former Sony Music Nashville executive Joe Galante, both of whom received the Cliffie Stone Icon Award, Lady A (Gary Haber Lifting Lives Award), Toby Keith (Merle Haggard Spirit Award), longtime ACM Awards producer RAC Clark (Mae Boren Axton Service Award) and Ken Burns' Country Music docuseries (Tex Ritter Film Award). 2020 and 2021 ACM Songwriter of the Year Hillary Lindsey, as well as the 2020 ACM Awards studio recording and industry award winners and the 2021 ACM Awards studio recording award winners, were all recognized as well (industry awards, which focus on the live aspect of country music, were not handed out in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

On Nov. 23, the Circle Network will air a television special featuring footage from the 2021 ACM Honors. In the meantime, keep reading to see photos from the event:

PICS: 2021 ACM Honors

The 2021 ACM Honors took place at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Wednesday night (Aug. 25).

Ahead of the 2021 ACM Honors, the ACM hosted its annual Party for a Cause at Nashville's Ascend Amphitheater on Tuesday (Aug. 24). The event — which benefits Lifting Lives, the ACM's charitable arm, and usually precedes the ACM Awards — featured performances from Trisha YearwoodMickey Guyton and more.

PICS: 2021 ACM Party for a Cause

The 2021 ACM Party for a Cause featured music from Mickey GuytonCarly PearceBrett Eldredge, Sam HuntMaren MorrisOld Dominion and more.

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