Rest assured, if you were sitting in front of your TV, you had the best seat in the house Wednesday night for the 56th annual CMA Awards show. But you still missed another show going on inside Nashville's packed Bridgestone Arena during country's biggest night, and PEOPLE was there to report on what you didn't see on TV:
DID SHE OR DIDN'T SHE COME? That was the big question surrounding Maren Morris, a nominee for album of the year, after she engaged in a politically charged exchange online a couple of months ago with Jason Aldean's wife, Brittany.
"Honestly, I haven't decided if I'm gonna go," she said in a September interview. "Maybe I'll make a game-time decision and go. But as of right now, I don't feel comfortable going."
Morris did indeed call an audible, and she and husband, Ryan Hurd — festively carrying a bottle of champagne — slipped into the arena during a commercial break just moments before her category was announced. Their prime seats, at one of dozens of round tables reserved for nominees and their guests, were on the opposite side from where the Aldeans were assigned.
The couple was there long enough to watch one performance (Lainey Wilson and HARDY's "Wait in the Truck"), hear her name called from the stage, stand and applaud for category winner Luke Combs, and have her face briefly caught on camera before she and Hurd departed, champagne in tow. Total time: eight minutes.
A DEFINITE NO-SHOW: The opening TV montage included a snippet of Jimmie Allen, a clear signal that the 2021 new artist of the year would be performing on the show. But there must have been no time to edit out that footage. Allen was expected to join the Zac Brown Band and Marcus King for a performance "Out in the Middle," but Allen reported on his socials Wednesday that he was "under the weather" and unable to attend.
LEAP OF JOY: Viewers got to watch Jordan Davis beckon show co-host Luke Bryan, his "Buy Dirt" collaborator, to the stage after the No. 1 hit won song of the year, and Bryan wrapped Davis in a bear hug. But what they missed was Bryan jumping like a pogo stick when the song's win was announced. He was standing about 100 feet away at the time, and his heroic sprint up to the stage and back returned him to his spot in time for his next on-camera introduction.
John Shearer/Getty Luke Bryan and Jordan Davis
HIS KIND OF NIGHT: Actually, no one in the arena seemed to enjoy the show more than Bryan, whether on or off camera. As he moved from spot to spot for his intros, he greeted friends, did little dance moves, and waved to the crowd.
And no one evoked a stronger reaction from Bryan than Lionel Richie, Bryan's fellow judge on American Idol, who emerged from the bowels of the arena late in the show to await his turn as a presenter. The two men stood perhaps 50 feet away from each other — Bryan surrounded by a production crew as he awaited his next on-camera — while Wilson was onstage honoring two CMA-promoted nonprofit projects.
At first, the two men merely waved to each other, but then the magnetic forces took over: Richie moved toward Bryan. The co-host broke rank and slipped out of his assigned spot, and the two pals got to hug it out before a crew member had to (tactfully) shoo Richie away.
TRUE FAN: Keith Urban didn't perform or present, nor was he nominated for an award, but — unlike so many of his other fellow idols — the two-time entertainer of the year was there for the entire show. And he appeared to enjoy every minute, often the first to jump to his feet after a thrilling performance, offering applause or a fist pump.
Uncharacteristically, he was without his plus-one, his Oscar-winning wife, Nicole Kidman, but Urban made it a bro-country kind of night with his seatmate, Luke Combs. The two happily chatted at breaks throughout the evening. At one point, a roaming photographer stopped by for a photo of the two, and they dutifully rose and — as if on cue — simultaneously buttoned their suit coats for the formal pic.
John Shearer/Getty Keith Urban and Luke Combs
LADIES' NIGHT: Some of the biggest audience reactions of the evening were reserved for three women who haven't charted in years: Jo Dee Messina, who joined Cole Swindell on "She Had Me at Heads Carolina"; Wynonna Judd, who presented the duo of the year award; and Patty Loveless, who joined Chris and Morgane Stapleton on "You'll Never Leave Harlan." The crowd roared at Messina's surprise appearance, and Judd received an instant standing ovation when she took the stage. Loveless' vocal turn jolted the front-row stars to their feet, inspiring waves, over-the-head claps and reverent idol worship.
ABC via Getty Jo Dee Messina and Cole Swindell
PIANIST ENVY: For those who believed Elle King was actually playing the piano during her blazing "Great Balls of Fire" tribute to the late Jerry Lee Lewis, you can let that one go. For the record, King does play a little piano, but she earlier confirmed to PEOPLE on the red carpet, "I'm definitely not a piano player in any sense of the way, like [Lewis]." The Killer's signature sounds emanated from a live track.
Mark Humphrey/Invision/AP/Shutterstock Elle King
HER BIGGEST FAN: Before the show, Lainey Wilson said that — win or lose — her high point of the night was the fact that her father, Brian Wilson, was there to accompany her. The Louisiana farmer spent two months in the hospital earlier this year fighting off a deadly fungal infection, losing an eye to the illness. Of course, his daughter was one of the night's big winners, and Dad fully grasped the import of the occasion. Though he stood up and sat down along with the rest of the crowd after she won new artist, the proud papa stayed on his feet throughout her entire acceptance speech for female vocalist.
Jason Davis/WireImage Lainey Wilson and her dad, Brian
DOUBLE THE FUN: John Osborne was making a little CMA history by perhaps being the first to announce a pregnancy — his wife Lucie Silvas' — during an acceptance speech. (He and brother TJ Osborne took home their fifth vocal duo of the year award.) Afterward, Silvas, who revealed to PEOPLE exclusively ahead of the show that they were expecting twins, was lapping up congratulations from a steady stream of friends stopping by the couple's table. Among the first to make a beeline to the expectant mom: Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild.
Katie Kauss Lucie Silvas and John Osborne
UNCOUPLED: Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley announced back in February that they were taking a break from recording together, but the CMA's seat assigners took their separation seriously, placing the men and their wives at tables far away from each other. They've all been seated together every time since the three-time vocal duo of the year was first nominated in 2013.
FINAL COUNTDOWN: Perhaps the most amazing unsung performance of the evening was Luke Combs' acceptance speech for entertainer of the year. His win came in the show's final moments, when producers are always hell-bent to end on time, and Combs was looking straight into a teleprompter screen that was counting down just 30 seconds of allotted time. True to his superstar stature, he nailed it.
Jason Kempin/Getty Luke Combs