Top nominee Carrie Underwood will perform for the first time since becoming a mom in February, and EDM superstar Zedd will perform with Lady Antebellum: Those are just two of the highlights planned for the CMT Awards, beamed live from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on June 10. John Hamlin, the network’s SVP music events and talent (and a former 60 Minutes producer who has been with CMT since 2007) tells Billboard what else is in store on country music’s “loudest night.”
How do you position the CMT Awards to stand out from the other country awards shows?
The personality of the CMT Awards that’s developed over the last several years is one of irreverence. The demo of our show is about 10 years younger than most country award shows and I think that’s a reflection of the urgency and the timeliness of the music that we showcase.
In the past two years you’ve featured artists like Lenny Kravitz, Jason Derulo, ZZ Top and John Legend. What’s the strategy behind those non-country acts?
I want the show’s performances to reflect what our audience likes. You look at any 25-year old country fan’s playlist on their phone, and you’re going to see country, hip-hop, pop, classic rock and other out-of-format genres.
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Last year’s awards were the second-most watched telecast in the history of CMT. What pressure do you feel to make this the highest rated?
I feel a lot of pressure. It’s the most important night for the channel. What keeps me up at night is to make sure that there are performances that when they’re over, people go, “That’s why they’re CMT. That’s why they’re good at this.” If you have a lineup and everything’s predictable, then I think you’re kind of in trouble. You need to have some unpredictable things.
What’s new this year?
I’m starting to love the EDM/pop elements that are finding their way into today’s country and have been looking for chance to connect the dots on TV. Both Zedd and Lady Antebellum immediately responded to our idea of putting them together for a CMT Music Awards performance. As far as we know it’s the first-ever awards show country/EDM jam.
Is that a little edgy for country music audiences?
We in the country music business all learned something from what the Dixie Chicks went through: If you go too far you may not ever be able to go back, and that’s a shame. It’s better to push the boundaries than be boring, but we’re always cognizant that you don’t want to go too far.
In March following Viacom’s restructuring and cutbacks, CMT moved to the new Kids and Family group under Cyma Zarghami. How has that affected how you do your job?
In the beginning, we were like, “What’s going to happen?” But we’re 90 days in and we are thrilled with that team. They are giving us the support, the encouragement and the leeway to make the shows that we know how to make for our audience.
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What do you say to rumors that CMT will focus more on family programming and less on music?
That is absolutely not the case. Not only do we have no plans to minimize the music on CMT, we want to grow it. That [news] was music to everyone’s ears.
A version of this story originally appeared in the June 13 issue of Billboard.