Jason Aldean took the stage at the start of the 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday to pay emotional tribute to the victims of the tragic Route 91 Harvest festival shooting in Las Vegas last October.
As the show opened, a dark-suited Aldean stood in the spotlight on the stage to dedicate this year's show to the power music has for getting us through life, and was joined by Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Maren Morris and Thomas Rhett.
"Tonight we wanted to open the show with something that sums up what it's like for our country music family to be back in Las Vegas for the first time since Oct. 1," Aldean said somberly. "We thought about starting with a song, but it's a lot bigger than a single song. It's everything you'll hear tonight. The songs that bring us to our feet, make you want to pull someone close or just live in the moment. Nothing can take that away from us."
Appearing in a pool of light out of the darkness of the stage, Lambert shared, "On this night, our country community, the people here in Las Vegas, and all of you at home are united through the power of music."
Bryan and Morris then joined the emotional tribute. "For those of us who have experienced tragedy and unexpected loss, music helps us remember what really matters in life," Bryan shared.
"Music does so much more than provide an escape from the pain," Morris said. "It inspires us, it soothes us and it makes us stronger."
"It gives us a chance to rejoice in what we have," Rhett added, "and tells us there's always a reason to carry on."
As the tribute came to a close, the five artists stood together on the stage as Aldean introduced the show. "With respect to and love to the victims, our friends, our families and fans, we celebrate the music tonight," the singer said, kicking off the star-studded event.
ET's Nancy O'Dell caught up with Aldean on the red carpet before the show, where he said he was "glad to be a part" of the heartfelt tribute, but that the attack was still incredibly painful to think back on.
"We've talked about [the tribute] so much over the last six months, but it's not something I enjoy talking about, really. It's tough whenever it gets brought up, it's still tough," Aldean said. "But I think it's a classy move on the part of the ACMs."
The singer also got candid about how the devastating attack has affected him, explaining, "I think it makes you kinda grow up in a lot of ways."
"I'm 40 years old but sometimes it takes us guys takes us a while to grow up. Something like that happens and it sorta makes you look at a lot of things different and realize how short life is and it kinda makes you get your act together a little bit," he shared. "It definitely did that for me."
ET's Sophie Schillaci spoke with host Reba McEntire days before the awards ceremony, when she opened up about the show's tribute, which she said was presented to let the victims of the horrible tragedy "know that our thoughts and our prayers are still with them."
This year's ACM Awards were held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, only a few blocks from where the mass shooting took place just over six months ago, and the country music queen said the show "decided to stay in Vegas this year because nothing's gonna run us out."
"We're not afraid, we're not gonna act on fear, and we're gonna continue, 'cause we're Americans and we're strong," she added.
On Thursday, ET caught up with Aldean at the iHeartCountry Album Release party for his new record, Rearview Town, at the iHeartRadio Theater in Los Angeles, and he opened up about how he felt to be returning to perform in Las Vegas for the first time since the attack.
"I have just a little bit of a weird feeling. But I think I've experienced a lot of great things out there, a lot of big times in my career, really career-defining moments for me in Vegas, so I love the city," she shared. "I'm excited that I'm going out there with the country music family."
Aldean was on stage on the night of Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman opened fire on the outdoor music festival from the window of an adjacent resort hotel. 58 people at the concert were killed in the attack, and more than 850 others were injured, making it the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
Many country artists who had performed at the festival earlier were in the audience or nearby when the attack happened, which is why the 41-year-old musician said he felt returning to Las Vegas for this year's Academy of Country Music Awards just feels right.
"I think for me to go back in this way, with all those people, is kind of the perfect way to really go back and do it for the first time," he shared. Check out the video below to hear more from Aldean about his return.
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