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Jennifer and partner Kristian Bush of Sugarland kicked off the evening with a rousing, gritty, slightly funked-up rendition of 'Winter Wonderland,' backed by the Southern harmonies of Little Big Town. Covered with huge, brightly-lit Christmas trees and wrapped packages, with giant ornaments hanging from the rafters, the stage was the perfect backdrop for the evening's holiday merriment, which included dozens of performances of classic Christmas tunes and special artist recollections of Christmases past.
LeAnn Rimes frolicked around the Christmas tree in a high-energy song-and-dance number to the Brenda Lee classic, 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree,' as a troop of sailors tossed her about all over the stage in a moment of frenzied festive fun.
Reba McEntire, Little Big Town and others recalled what they love most about the holidays, with Brad Paisley admitting his favorite part of the holidays is the fact that now that he has his own children. "Now I can go into a toy store and not feel like a weirdo!" he joked.
Rascal Flatts' Jay DeMarcus remarked that he and his wife were getting the most precious gift of all with the upcoming birth of their daughter, Madeline, then let the cat out of the bag to his mom when he admitted that he and Alison always spend every Christmas Eve with her grandmother! "We do, and as a result, my folks hate me. I'm telling them right on camera that we spend every Christmas Eve with your family. Sorry, Mom!"
His mom may have forgiven him by the time Jay and the rest of the Flatts took the stage and added their unmistakable harmonies to a beautiful, traditional version of 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,' accompanied by some brass and fiddle, in a winter wonderland of falling snow amidst a starry blue background. The trio then offered up thanks and appreciation to the U.S. troops overseas in recognition of their sacrifice, then gave a moving tribute to the soldiers with a stirring a capella version of the Bing Crosby favorite, 'I'll Be Home For Christmas,' as pictures of those serving flashed onscreen and the families of soldiers sent their well wishes to their loved ones so very far away.
Martina McBride and daughters Emma and Delaney shared some favorite holiday memories from days gone by, and also admitted that the big debate in their house each year is always clear Christmas lights vs. colored ones on the tree. "I remember one year you got a fish in a fish tank, which is what you really wanted," Martina recalled to her girls, who said they loved stringing popcorn on yarn to hang on the tree each year. Martina then warmed the hearts of the crowd as she sang the classic, 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,' backed by an orchestra and dressed in a gorgeous full length gown.
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Darius Rucker and his children also shared some pretty special holiday traditions, as he lamented the fact that the kids always wake them up way too early! "We also always sit down and watch all the Christmas specials, " said Darius. Clad in a velvet jacket and in the spirit of the season and a moment of pure kid-like fun, Darius performed a fun original, 'Candy Cane Christmas,' for the crowd as giant candy canes appeared on the screen behind him.
Freshly-crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year Brad Paisley is no stranger to singing holiday songs -- in fact, the first song he ever wrote at age 12 was a Christmas song, 'Born On Christmas Day,' and he laughed as a video clip of the performance of that tune flashed onscreen to remind him just how far he's come.
"As a Christmas gift to you all, here's a look at little Brad Paisley singing the first song he ever wrote!" said Jennifer, introducing the clip. When it was over, she added, "How sweet! And a great song, too, I must say, and might I add, you have really grown into your ears," teased Jennifer, as the clip of a pre-teen Brad flashed onscreen behind him. "I look like a taxicab with the doors open," added Brad, laughing at the site of his pre-teen self.
"I was 12, and I don't know what I was doing, I wrote this song and it turned out really pretty good ... I've written worse songs lately," he said, laughing. "It was a small miracle! But one of my most important gifts was a guitar I got from my grandfather. He just wanted me to play, he wrapped up one of his, and that's one of the best gifts I ever got. I hope there's kids out there getting guitars for Christmas or any instrument for that matter. Nothing changed my life like that Christmas guitar when I was eight from my grandfather." Showing why he holds the Entertainer crown, Brad then performed a beautiful, acoustic performance of the hymn 'What Child Is This,' with only his guitar, demonstrating how much that gift really has impacted his life ever since.
Little Big Town then took the crowd to church for a minute, testifying on the old-time gospel favorite, 'Go Tell It On the Mountain' and injecting some blue-eyed soul into the evening's festivities with their unmistakable harmonies.
Reba recalled cutting a Christmas tree on their land in Chockie, Okla. growing up, and how she and her sisters would decorate and then re-decorate it, over and over. Bringing her usual spunk and fire to the stage and decked out in black sequins, Reba then thrilled the audience with her rendition of the perennial favorite, 'Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town,' as dozens of jolly Santas passed out gifts throughout the crowd.
Clad in a voluptuous, lipstick red, form-hugging dress sure to knock Santa's socks off, Kellie Pickler added the spice cookies to the holiday plate with her sultry take on the Eartha Kitt favorite, 'Santa Baby,' as she lay atop a gorgeous antique chaise lounge.
Martina McBride provided one of the evening's more poignant moments as she applied her powerhouse vocals to the hymn 'O Holy Night,' as the awed audience watched and applauded, giving her a standing ovation.
LeAnn Rimes revealed that she loves giving gifts to all her friends at the holidays, and got choked up as she recalled how she wrote each of her friends a handwritten letter of appreciation last year for sticking by her during such a tough year emotionally. She then rolled through a slow and sweet 'White Christmas,' as snowflakes swirled all around her.
Sheryl Crow and Brad Paisley then kicked things up a notch, adding some rousing fun to the night's festivities as they traded guitar licks and rocked the house on the Chuck Berry classic, 'Run, Run Rudolph,' Brad's glimmering silver paisley adorned axe was the perfect accompaniment for the smoking tune as the two burned through it effortlessly, smiles on their faces all the way through.
Jennifer and Sugarland partner Kristian recalled the year they both excitedly talked up the gifts they were giving each other for weeks, only to find hilariously that great minds think alike, and they had bought the exact same thing -- a turntable -- for each other! In fact, Jennifer was so curious about her gifts as a child that her mom finally had to dissuade her from peeking by saying that Santa might throw pepper in her face if she accidentally caught him and found her presents! The pair then returned to the glistening stage for one more song, a reverent take on the beautiful hymn 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel,' before the finale of the 90-minute special.
The halls were definitely decked by the time the entire cast of artists and their children took the stage for the rollicking finale, 'Jingle Bell Rock,' which featured Reba and Jennifer blending their voices in some ho-ho-ho harmony that thrilled the crowd and no doubt left everybody watching in the spirit of the season and ready to celebrate with family and friends.