LAS VEGAS—No genre embraces the American way of life with such unbridled patriotic fervor as country music, so paying tribute to the U.S. military seemed like a natural fit.

But “ACM Presents: An All-Star Salute to the Troops” took what could have been a flag-waving, jingoistic exercise and turned it into a meaningful, often moving salute by not only honoring men and women in all branches of the armed services, but by including them as performers. And some of them threatened to steal the show from the professionals.

Taped Monday (April 8), the night after the ACM Awards, and airing May 20 on CBS, the All-Star Salute featured top names such as Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert , Toby Keith, Hunter Hayes, Dierks Bentley, and more.  Hosted by “NCIS: Los Angeles” stars Chris O’ Donnell and LL Cool J (who must have a pact with God and/or CBS head Les Moonves that he gets to host every music show), the evening started with legends Merle Haggard and George Strait performing Haggard’s classic, “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”

Eli Young Band then performed a spirited version of  Lynrnd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps.” Between those two songs, it became clear that the evening wouldn’t be devoted to songs about the red, white, and blue so much as songs of inspiration, fun, and, as shown later in the program, great poignancy.

Keith Urban was the first to perform with a member of the military, Navy petty officer Destiny Coates, and the two delivered an impassioned version of “For You,” Urban’s Golden Globe-nominated tune from “Act of Valor.” They were followed by Hunter Hayes and a Coast Guard officer who harmonized together beautifully on a cover of Imagine Dragons’ “Top of the World.”

Time and again, members of the military came out to perform, smartly outfitted in their dress uniforms, and to the soldier, all rose beautifully to the occasion, none of them displaying the slightest case of nervousness. Given that they are facing far greater challenges and dangers every day on the job, perhaps singing in front of several thousand people at the MGM Grand Garden Arena here was nothing to even work up a sweat over.

Every military performer acquitted him or herself well and with tremendous poise and dignity, but some showed off such exceptional singing talents, that it’s possible to imagine they will pursue music careers after their time in the service is done.

Baily Zimmerman went toe to toe with Kellie Pickler on the sassy “Red High Heels,” giving Pickler a run for her money. Army officer Kelly Gregg fit in like a fourth member of The Band Perry on a poignant, aching “If I Die Young,” with her soaring harmonies and ability to take the lead on several lines, as the sibling trio graciously ceded the spotlight. She deservedly received a standing ovation and the band stood off to the sidelines, letting her bask in the spotlight.

Like “If I Die Young,” several of the songs not written about paying the ultimate price for serving one’s country took on added meaning when performed in the context of Monday night’s military theme: Luke Bryan played a solo acoustic version of “Drink A Beer,” a song inspired by the deaths of both his brother and sister. Similarly, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton played “Over You,” a hit for Lambert co-written by Shelton about the death of his brother when Shelton was 16. Shelton has said he couldn’t record the song because it was too painful for him, and in the taped segment, he kept his eyes closed with a stoic grimace on his face, as he accompanied Lambert on acoustic guitar and occasional backing vocals.
“I Drive Your Truck,” Sunday night’s ACM song of the year winner, drew one of the evening’s biggest ovations. Recorded and performed by Lee Brice, who was accompanied by Army sergeant Christiana Ball, the song was written about a fallen soldier. Connie Harrington, who co-wrote the song with Jessi Alexander and Jimmy Yeary, saw a story about a father who coped with his son’s death by driving his truck. Brice and Ball’s simple version featured their two voices wrapping around each other before Ball delivered a final beautiful close to an appreciative crowd.

Carrie Underwood felt so inspired after being asked to perform that she co-wrote a song especially for the evening. “Keep Us Safe,” a swelling, soaring Diane Warren-like power ballad, gave Underwood a chance to show off her incredible vocals. Plus, viewers who donate to ACM’s Lifting Lives program will receive  a free download of the song.

Other highlights included Lady Antebellum’s uplifting, stomping “Compass,” which recalls the Lumineers’ “Hey Ho,” performed with a Marine on fiddle and another on guitar and backing vocals; and Rascal Flatts’ “Rewind,” with Marine officer Brandon Valentine perfectly complementing Gary LeVox’s lead. (After Rascal Flatts caught hell for lip syncing during the ACMs, it was very clear that they were singing live Monday night).

Toby Keith, who performed the funny “Call A Marine” earlier in the evening, closed the night with “American Soldier,” as all 12 of the military performers formed a line behind him, standing tall and proud in their uniforms. It was a fitting close to an enjoyable, respectful, musical evening that gave a handful of our nation’s finest a night to be rock stars before they return to the job of protecting and serving us, often in harm’s way.