Sara Kauss/FilmMagic Dierks Bentley
It's all about paying it back: Dierks Bentley, Elle King and powerhouse Americana duo The War and Treaty were each tapped to perform tributes on the CMA awards show Wednesday night, and on the red carpet, they were eager to talk about their musical heroes.
Bentley took the stage to perform "Chattahoochee" in honor of Alan Jackson, who received a CMA lifetime achievement award, and he reminisced about how he first encountered the country icon in Nashville.
"He's the first celebrity I met when I moved to town in 1994," Bentley, 46, told PEOPLE, recounting how he ran into Jackson while shoe shopping at an indoor mall. "I waited outside to talk to him."
Both men also share an employment history with TNN (The Nashville Network), where they took jobs to help make ends meet while pursuing their careers. "Different eras, but we both worked the same area," Bentley noted, "and I talked to him about that today, and he remembered my boss, who was also his boss back then."
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood, Alan Jackson, Lainey Wilson and Jon Pardi
Bentley said he ranks Jackson's music "at the top" of his influences: "It was Hank [Williams] Junior and Alan Jackson and Marty Stuart. They were the first three artists that really turned me back onto country music when I was 17. [Jackson's] 'Midnight in Montgomery' was a specific song that really just changed my world."
Elle King, who's been making waves with her crossover into country, turned in an incendiary performance of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" Wednesday night, and on the carpet, she talked to PEOPLE about how she grew up on the late rockabilly pioneer's music.
Sara Kauss/FilmMagic Elle King
Her father, actor-comedian Rob Schneider, she noted, "was a massive rockabilly fan, and he had a pompadour and the sickest Fifties western jackets, so that kind of music was just the soundtrack of my childhood."
Now the 33-year-old singer-songwriter points to all the strains of the hybrid sound as her major influences. "Rockabilly is the best of all worlds — country, blues and rock 'n' roll, which are all of my favorite things," said King, whose debut country album, Come Get Your Wife, is due out in January. "Those were the songs that I learned how to play because that's what I want to feel. That's what I want to evoke. That's what charged me up when I started to play music, write music, love music."
Mark Humphrey/Invision/AP/Shutterstock Elle King
Husband-and-wife team Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter, aka The War and Treaty, served up their own explosive performance on Wednesday night, teaming with the Brothers Osborne on the Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)." The two duos' collaboration formed for the upcoming Stones tribute album, Stone Cold Country, which also features such country stars as Little Big Town, Eric Church and Maren Morris.
The Trotters marveled at the freshness of the Stones' music as it enters its seventh decade, and they were equally excited to be sharing the moment with two of their musical heroes, John and TJ Osborne, who took home their fifth vocal duo of the year award on Wednesday.
Terry Wyatt/WireImage John Osborne, Tanya and Michael Trotter and TJ Osborne
"They're like family," Tanya Trotter said. "We enjoy them so much, and we take advice from them, and we really look up to what they've been able to do. They know a little something about being a duo in country music!"
The Wednesday night appearance marked the Trotters' debut on the CMA stage, and the couple was celebrating the moment, as well. Last year, Michael Trotter noted, they were audience members seated "in the rafters."
"And we were watching the show," he recalled, "and I leaned into Tanya and said, 'Do you think we could ever be good enough to get on this stage?' And she said, 'If we work hard, within five years, I think that can happen.'"
Sara Kauss/FilmMagic Tanya and Michael Trotter of The War and Treaty
He doesn't mind that her prediction was a little off?
"Dream come true," he summed.