On Nov. 10, the 55th annual CMA Awards will return to its longtime home at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena—and will again welcome a full audience of country music fans. The move follows 2020’s more intimate, socially distanced ceremony attended only by nominated artists and performers to Nashville’s Music City Center because of the pandemic.
Executive producer Robert Deaton, who recently extended his deal with the CMA through 2026, for one can’t wait. “I can’t imagine what it will feel like when the audience gets there, and it’s five minutes before the show and you feel like you’re going to be sick,” he tells Billboard in his and CMA CEO Sarah Trahern‘s first interview about the awards. “That excitement and having the fans in there will be incredible.”
This year, two-time CMA entertainer of the year winner Luke Bryan serves as CMA Awards host for the first time, following a two-time stint as an ACM Awards co-host, as well as his ongoing role as a judge on American Idol, which, like the CMA Awards show, airs on ABC.
Thursday morning (Nov. 4), the final round of CMA Awards performers were announced, including Gabby Barrett, Bryan, Dierks Bentley feat. Breland and HARDY, Thomas Rhett, Keith Urban, Zac Brown Band, and Jennifer Hudson. They join previously announced performers including Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood, Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer, Madeline Edwards, Carly Pearce, Ashley McBryde, Chris Young, Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Brothers Osborne, Eric Church, Luke Combs, Dan+Shay, Miranda Lambert, Old Dominion, Blake Shelton and Chris Stapleton.
Trahern and Deaton talked to Billboard about returning to Bridgestone Arena, the extreme cost of keeping everyone safe through rigorous COVID testing protocols ahead of the show, and previewed a few can’t-miss performances.
Billboard: How does it feel to be bringing the CMA Awards back to Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena?
Deaton: I did not know how it was going to feel when I walked into my office. It had been two years since we had been in there. It literally feels like coming home. I know that sounds so silly but it’s not. We were like, ‘Yes, we’re back to where we should be.’ We walked in the door and we stepped in the production office and we went to my office, and it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s so great to be back here again.’ I can’t imagine what it will feel like when the audience gets there, and it’s five minutes before the show and you feel like you’re going to be sick. That excitement and having the fans in there will be incredible.
Luke Bryan will be hosting this year, and it will mark the first time the CMA Awards have had a solo host since Vince Gill hosted from 1994 through 2003. What was the reasoning behind going for a solo host, versus a duo or trio?
Deaton: I’ve always been a believer that things are supposed to happen at the right time. This is Luke’s time. It was never a situation where we thought, ‘Oh, it’s been so many years since we’ve had a solo host.’ That never entered our minds.
Trahern: I agree, it is Luke’s time. We shot some pieces with him a few weeks ago and the energy and care and excitement that he brings to it…He’s a two-time entertainer of the year winner and knows how important the CMA Awards are as part of his career history, too. I walked by the room the other day and Robert was doing his first script read through with Luke in person and I felt like the energy was palpable. I think in a year like this when we are all coming back to the arena and fans around the country are coming to see a full-on show, Luke will be a great person to lead that.
Luke’s mother LeClaire also has quite the following on social media. Is there any chance she will make an appearance during the show?
Deaton: There is a good chance that there will be some pretty awesome surprises.
Mickey Guyton, who is nominated for best new artist, will be joined by fellow Black country artists Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards for a performance. How did that collaboration come about?
Deaton: Honestly, my intention was with her being nominated for best new artist, I thought I had already settled on a performance of “All American.” I wanted to do a big production number and have all these drummers onstage. I was listening to [Guyton’s album] and “Love My Hair” floored me. The lyrical content and what she had to go through–or what anyone like that has to go through—feeling inferior, feeling like you’re not accepted. I thought this is such a beautiful song that needed to be heard. I got a phone call from [Universal Music Group Nashville president] Cindy Mabe and Mickey, and they asked what song I wanted to do. I said, “The song that floored me—and I had to pull my car over–was ‘Love My Hair.’” Mickey loved that I would pick that song. Then through that creative conversation we thought how nice it would be to have guest performers on that song as well.
Trahern: I think it’s such a great song of female empowerment and the fact that Mickey and Robert decided to include more up-and-comers who will likely themselves be gracing our stage in a year or two. It uses this platform as a springboard for talent.
Last year, several performers had to drop out at the last minute due to positive COVID-19 tests. What does that look like this year? Are you overbooking performers and musicians, and what is your plan for COVID testing?
Trahern: Every case is different. I don’t think we ever imagined we’d have the situations we had last year, and we were able to roll with the punches. We had taped performances, and things from the past CMA awards that we could pull if we needed to. If we look at the fact that Lee Brice dropped out, but he was able to put Charles Kelley in the role so that Carly Pearce still had a great moment on the show last year. So I think our rigorous testing protocols allowed us to catch people before they get onsite. I hope that this year, now that we are a year further into it, we have less of that or none of that at all. But Robert is thinking three-dimensionally, depending on what could happen.
Deaton: There’s no overriding rule. Someone having COVID today is different than someone having COVID the day of show. You can only start planning some things that you could look at doing—for example, an additional performance by a certain artist or long packages for the nomination patterns. But for the most part, it all depends on timing. So, we take it as it comes. You must be able to move and make a decision, that’s the biggest thing. No artist got COVID on our footprint last year. We are still following all protocols from all the unions, the city, the WGA, Directors Guild of America, SAG-AFTRA. So yes there are different zones.
Trahern: I’ll say one of the things that speaks to Robert’s brilliance last year was figuring a way to do a show in front of an audience of nominated artists in the room without it being a full-on arena situation. Even as it was, we spent close to $1.5 million on COVID testing during that program. This year it makes that exponential when you have a larger group of nominees and traditional presenters that might not be nominated. Whereas last year we had a Zone A (for those who needed to be on stage) and a Zone B, we are really treating this year with the Zone A protocols, which is testing regularly, all the other safety protocols, masks, shields, hand sanitizers. But really the biggest thing is offsite testing in advance, and the safety of our artists is our primary concern. We do those tests offsite and to the point Robert made, none of the artists that tested positive last year even came into the footprint. They tested either at their house while we sent a medical crew out to their house to test, or they tested at an offsite location. Nobody is allowed onsite until they have a clean test.
One category everyone will be watching is the album of the year category. Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album is nominated in the category, though the CMAs decided he will not be allowed to attend. If the album wins, who will accept on his behalf?
Trahern: The album of the year category goes to the artist, but it also goes to the producer and to the mix engineer. So in that case, both of them have been invited to attend and should Dangerous win, they would be up there, honored with the award.
The Academy of Country Music Awards recently inked a deal to livestream their awards show next year exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. With the CMAs still being on broadcast TV, how will this impact the CMAs in terms of greater opportunities for sponsorship and booking artists?
Trahern: I’m glad that [the ACMs] have a home for their show, having been formerly the chairman of the ACM board [in 2011], and I value the franchise. With that said, I’m excited that we just signed a new five-year deal with ABC. We’ve worked with them for years. I can say that they’ve doubled down their energy with what they are doing for the red carpet and in-show promotion across their platforms and Dancing With The Stars and more. One thing that is exciting is it’s not just TV and linear network but you can watch it live on ABC and stream it the next day on [Disney-owned] Hulu. So I think we get the best of both worlds—we get the network run plus we get the streaming play, which is exciting.
How will those opportunities be expanded even more going into the years ahead?
Trahern: We are working on those details right now, but our goal is to expand our content offerings. We extended our CMA Country Christmas franchise as well but we’re having discussions with them [ABC] about other programming opportunities on their platform. One of our important goals is not just honoring the superstars of today in the format, but also meeting the young fans where they are, so some of them may be “cord-cutters” or “cord-nevers.” It’s finding ways to create compelling CMA-branded content on a variety of platforms.
Last year, ratings for awards shows were down across the board, and the CMAs had a substantial drop as well, with an over 30% decline from the previous year. Are you concerned about ratings for this year’s show?
Trahern: The worry about ratings doesn’t keep me up at night anymore. I’ve spent my career in television and ratings certainly still matter, but looking at how it does over time, how fans are accepting the content on short form, whether it’s on Vevo or other platforms, our Summer Jam numbers were up from what we did last year and particularly if you look at people who ran it last year on Hulu. I expect to have a strong awards show night. I feel like the promotion’s really strong and the show’s good. But I think also the new generation consumes content differently and it’s not just about the people who are actually watching live. One of the magical things that Robert Deaton does really well is create those water cooler moments, certainly we’ve talked about Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton for years. We also talked about the performance of Beyonce and the Chicks, just to name a few. This show will lend itself to two or three of those moments where the next morning people will say, “Hey, you didn’t catch this, you need to check it out on Hulu.” So I have a lot of faith that Robert’s going to deliver that on the show. No pressure, buddy.
Deaton: Yeah, no pressure [laughs]. We have great artists. Here’s the thing, everything’s down. But like Sarah said, the way each demographic decides to consume the show is different. The younger demo is going to find the performances they want to see. And so, you have to look at it overall, from beginning to end, not just the night that it airs, but +3 [days], +7 [days]. Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake got 100 million views. Nobody really talked about that. In this day and age, it’s important that people come and see the show, but it’s equally important what happens after the show.