Watch Keith Urban's Vibrant Appearance on ABC's CMA Fest Special: Exclusive
For esteemed Nashville producer/director Robert Deaton, being the creative force behind the CMA Fest television special, which airs tonight (Aug. 8) at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC, is more than just a job, it’s personal.
“This was my first network television show that I had ever done,” Deaton tells Billboard. “When somebody reminded me the other day that this year marked 15 years, I thought ‘Wait a minute. This couldn’t possibly be.”
Deaton takes pride in the fact that the yearly telecast gives fans a chance to see the live magic that their favorite artists conjure up on stage. “The only time you might have gotten to see them live was on late night television talk shows, the CMA [Awards] or the ACM Awards. But, you never really got to see them in their element,” he says. “Take, for example, Keith Urban. You never got to experience the superstar live performance artists that he is. That’s one of the reasons I love this show. I think 15 years ago, it might have surprised people that artists such as those or Rascal Flatts had that kind of show or that stage presence—It’s like a big rock act like U2. I think that it’s incredible that we are the only genre who can showcase their artists in that type of environment with their fans and doing what they do out on tour.”
Watch exclusive previews of Urban’s performances of “Never Comin’ Down” and “Coming Home” below.
Deaton says the goal of the broadcast, which showcases acts that perform during June’s four-day CMA Fest in Nashville, is to drive awareness of the event and convert couch watchers to attendees. “Way back in the day, I produced and directed the ‘Are You Ready For Some Football?’ opening for Monday Night Football. We got people ready for football and made people wish that they were there. That’s what we wanted to do with CMA Fest. That’s why we have 25 cameras capturing every single angle of the audience. The audience actually plays as big of a role as the artists. We want people to see the fans having a good time." Among the other artists appearing are Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Florida Georgia Line, Kane Brown, Carrie Underwood, and Sam Hunt.
Even with all of his team’s preparation, Deaton says there are still happy surprises. “I know these artists so well because I shoot with them and know them personally. I get this feeling, so I’ll say ‘Let’s keep rolling. Something’s going to happen here.’ It happened last year when Luke invited Keith Urban on stage, and they performed for about 10 minutes. We kept rolling to see what happened. It turned out to be some of the best television we had ever done.”
Returning to host the show for the second year are Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini, who took over from quartet Little Big Town. “It was great to have four people to do intros. With Kelsea and Thomas, it’s a little bit different, and we do more stuff inside the stadium. We felt like the more the audience sees them, the better. It makes the show feel bigger,” he says. “There are some single intros that we’ll do – but the magic is when they are together – just like with [CMA Awards hosts] Brad [Paisley] and Carrie [Underwood]. There’s a certain type of electricity that happens when they are together that is its own thing. You can’t teach that. We’re lucky to have them.”
For his part in the broadcast, Rhett says there’s nothing like the adrenaline flow that happens on the banks of the Cumberland River at Nissan Stadium, home to the Tennessee Titans. “The energy at [CMA] Fest is infectious, which makes performing and hosting one of the highlights of my entire year,” he says. “It’s like one big hometown concert for all of us at the same time - with fans from all over the world. There’s nothing really like it!"
Getting to experience that feeling for the first time on the Nissan Stadium stage this year were newcomers Carly Pearce and Brett Young. “You dream of doing a lot of things associated with this amazing career, but I'd say this is at the top,” Pearce says. “I've sat in those stadium seats and dreamt year after year what it would be like to be on the stage. Because of the country music fans, I now know what a beautiful sight that they are from the stage.”
Similarly, Young can check this experience off his bucket list. "Playing Nissan Stadium during CMA Fest has always been a dream of mine, so it was pretty surreal to have it actually happen,” he says. “There is such an incredible energy in the stadium that is unlike any other. I’ll never forget that night!"