Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center was filled to the brim with country stars for the 2014 CMT Artists of the Year ceremony on Tuesday evening (Dec. 2). It was an especially memorable event, as Merle Haggard received the first-ever Artist of a Lifetime Award and was honored by many country favorites throughout the evening.

The award was presented by Billy Bob Thornton, who also gave a heartfelt speech about his friend.

“I’d just like to add something to what they’ve got here,” Thornton said, “which is that I wouldn’t only include Merle Haggard in the greatest songwriters of all time. But I would put him up there alongside people like Tennessee Williams and William Faulker, Erskine Caldwell and John Steinbeck, because he is truly a storyteller.

“That’s something that has been lost over the years, and I’m glad to see that it is coming back a little bit,” he added. “And Merle Haggard personifies the storyteller.”

Haggard has experienced a magnificent career, and he kept his acceptance speech short and to the point. He looked spiffy in a fitted black suit and yellow rose boutonniere, saying “Anything I’d say would be short of the mark, so thank you very much, and God bless you.”

As a final thought, he added, “Good music lives forever!”

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