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Country Stars Discuss Pop Duet Focus Backstage at CMT Awards

 Fifth Harmony and Cam perform during the 2016 CMT Music Awards
 FilmMagic/FilmMagic

 Fifth Harmony and Cam perform during the 2016 CMT Music Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on June 8, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.  

This year’s CMT Awards took a huge cue from another awards show, by filling the two-and-a-half-hour telecast with what have come to be known as “Grammy moments” — that is, pairing artists from different genres for buzzworthy duets or trios. On social media, the buzz wasn’t entirely positive, with some country fans wondering if the presence of Pitbull, Pharrell, Fifth Harmony, Leona Lewis, Cheap Trick, and Elle King as performers wasn’t more dilution than one country broadcast could handle. But, backstage, at least some of the country artists described these as their favorite moments.

“I got to hang out with Pharrell for the first time,” said Thomas Rhett, “and I think what Pharrell does for our genre and for the world of music in general is amazing. For him to go to work with Little Big Town and do a whole record with those guys and girls was just astonishing to me, so it was fun to watch them together on stage at the same time,” he said, talking about the quartet/producer combo’s show-closing “One Dance.”

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“I love Dierks (Bentley) and Elle King, so that was my favorite,” said Cam, talking about their duet on “It’s Different for Girls.” That’s a song from Bentley’s new album, so it’s one of the duets that wasn’t put together by CMT. Not so the collaboration Cam had with Fifth Harmony, a three-minute mashup of her “Mayday” and their “Work From Home.”

“I was stoked,” Cam said as the crew broke sets down after the show. “I did a cappella groups in high school and college — I was a huge nerd — and when you can have a bunch of female voices singing together, that’s my favorite thing in the whole world. Fifth Harmony had said they wanted to be a part of it, because they actually love country music. I don’t know why we all think pop stars must be evil people, but then you meet them and they are so down to earth and so chill. Once CMT said, ‘Would you want to do this? They really want to be on the show,’ I was like, yes! There’s not a lot of women to sing with these days, and singing with five women was a real pleasure. There was a moment where I was like, run away and be the sixth harmony.”

Cassadee Pope was asked to be part of a threesome with Leona Lewis on what was probably the evening’s most polarizing performance, a straight, unmedley-ized run-through of Pitbull’s “Messin’ Around,” complete with backup dancers. Of her partners for the number, Pope said, “I just met them this morning, and you never know when you’re meeting an artist for the first time and you’re a fan and you just hope they’re nice, but hey were lovely.”

It would have seemed like an opportunity for Pope to sing with Chris Young on “Think of You,” the No 1 country smash they had as a duet, but that will have to wait till she joins him on stage at the CMA Festival this weekend, which will be filmed for the annual CMA Fest telecast on ABC this September. Amazingly, the two of them still haven’t done the song on TV yet. “The song went so fast on radio, we lost the opportunity to do TV because they were all on hiatus,” Pope said. “So by the time they were off hiatus, the song had already done well, and we’re moving on to new single. Chris is going to focus on ‘Sober Saturday Night’ and I’m gonna focus on ‘Summer.’”

Although she didn’t get to sing one of her own songs, Pope seemed pleased with the crossover thrust of the evening. “I think CMT does a good job with bringing in different genres and making it classy and tasteful. I love that country fans are so open-minded to different genres, because we’re all influenced by all different kinds of music, so for us to sit here and only have country and say no to any other genre coming on our shows would just be kind of silly. Good music is good music. Let’s just have everybody.”

If there was a most-cited collaboration, though, it was a rare one between two country artists, Blake Shelton and the Oak Ridge Boys. “I have a special place for the Oak Ridge Boys,” said Tim McGraw. “They came down to sing at my grandmother’s funeral years ago, and I’ve been a big fan for a long time and they’ve always been supportive in my career, so to see those guys out there was a big highlight for me.”

And for them. “Man, we haven’t been near an award show in years!” admitted the Boys’ Joe Bonsall. “But thanks to Blake, boom, we got to go out there and have a good time.” He called them a couple of weeks ago to ask if they’d recreate their guest appearance on his new album’s “Doing It to Country Songs,” but “it was his idea to add one of our songs. We could have done a few more choruses of his, but he said, ‘No, man, I want these young ‘uns out here to hear the Oak Ridge Boys singing “Elvira.” Let’s do a key change, I’ll work it out with the band, we’ll woodshed it when you guys get here Monday, and let’s have a couple choruses of that at the end of the set.’ Thank you, Blake.”

A few artists merited going solo without benefit of a guest star, like Carrie Underwood. Not that she was alone on stage. “I’ve had choirs in performances before, but never with such a gospel feel to it,” said Underwood. “That’s kind of what the song lent itself to.” Of course, the song that lent itself so well to that gospel feel was a murder ballad, “Church Bells,” which is in no danger of becoming a Sunday morning standard. “It’s a good juxtaposition, I think,” she said. “Yeah, the feel is a little darker and a little heavier. But the character of the song, she gets some redemption.”

For a truly redemptive song, you might have to go to Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind.” He didn’t perform it on the show — maybe because it hardly fit in with the party vibe, or maybe because it was considered old news, with a video that had racked up a half-billion impressions by a few weeks ago, according to manager Scott Siman. But the Oprah-approved ballad was acknowledged in a big way when it won the climactic Video of the Year award.

“I think I was the only guy over 40 up there!” laughed McGraw after the show (leaving out the Oak Ridge Boys, whom we might consider literally grandfathered in). “You have a couple of those songs that come along in your career,” he said — alluding to its obvious predecessor, “Live Like You Were Dying” — “and I think any artist will tell you, when one of these does and it has the impact that it has, you don’t feel like it’s because of you. It sort of elevates above your career and how good or bad you may be. It’s just one of those songs that you can walk out on the street and recite the lyrics and they would have an impact on people.”

Asked how it fits in to the current less-than-kind political climate, McGraw said ”When I made the video, I wanted it to be a video about inclusiveness… No matter what your belief system is or your culture in the part of the world you’re in, we want the same things out of life –to need and be needed, to love and be loved, and we want our kids to have the greatest opportunities we could possibly give ‘em…

Loving-kindness always wins. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t stand up for yourself, and you hold yourself in high regard and you hold everybody around you in high regard until they prove differently. When they prove differently then you move on. That doesn’t mean you kick ‘em or anything like that.... You’ve got to respect people. I think that’s something that’s lacking.”


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