The 51st annual Country Music Association Awards will take place from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena and broadcast on ABC on Nov. 8, and for the 10th straight year, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood will share hosting duties.
Aside from Vince Gill’s 12-year run as host from 1992-2003, Underwood and Paisley own the longest reign. The historical list of CMA Awards hosts is an esteemed group. When the show launched in 1967, Bobbi Gentry (“Ode to Billie Joe”) and Sonny James (“Young Love”), shared emcee duties.
In 1968, the first year the awards show was televised, Dale Evans and Roy Rogers hosted. Other male-female duos include Barbara Mandrell and Mac Davis (1981), Anne Murray and Willie Nelson (1983), and Gill and Reba McEntire (1992).
As Paisley and Underwood ramp up to host the show for the 10th year, Paisley — who has claimed 14 CMA Awards, as well as the coveted entertainer of the year trophy — sat down with Billboard to reflect on the news. (Underwood has claimed six CMA trophies.)
Congratulations on being named, along with Carrie Underwood, to host the CMA Awards, for the 10th straight year. Can you first just give us a quick reaction to that and what it means?
Well, it’s extremely flattering, and for me, I take it seriously, and doing a good job means a lot to me personally. Every year we have figured something else out that would make it better for the next year, so I think we’ve been able to improve on our performance each year. But simply, just the fact that the CMA asked us again, I am very flattered and honored.
You and Carrie first hosted the CMAs in 2008. How has the relationship between the two of you evolved and grown over the years?
You know, when they first asked, it was pretty late. I think it was in August, as I remember, so my first thought was that someone must have turned them down. [Laughs] But seriously, I believe that show producer Robert Deaton had the original vision that we’d be good together. I think that over the years, Carrie and I have not only grown into our roles, but that we have also slipped into our individual characters. The time has helped us to complement each other and build a chemistry together.
How long will you prepare together and how much control do you have over the material?
Well, the first time we hosted, we didn’t have a lot of time, but now, with this being our 10th time hosting, we’ve actually been able to slip into a routine in how we work together, and we both start thinking about it now, making suggestions for potential bits we may want to expand on, etc. We text each other all the time, and we’ll meet in person to work on it for the first time in August.
As far as having a say in our material, that started in our second year, but by this point, there’s nothing said on the show that we didn’t have a hand in. Also, it’s a true collaborative effort between Carrie and me, with head writer David Wild.
I’m betting you’re always taking life in, thinking about which situations could be turned into joke material. Is there anything that you can remember that happened recently, that in most people’s case would make them upset but that you thought would be great joke material?
OK, so yes, I am always monitoring life as it happens, and having a comedic mind can be rough, in that something may occur that potentially can ruin someone’s day, and I’m thinking about how this can be turned into a bit and be really funny.
When you were a fan growing up, what was your first memory of watching the CMAs and noticing the host?
My first role model was Vince Gill. When I started doing this, I talked to him a lot. Essentially, in my history of watching, he was the one that made it look easy in that he was comfortable and casual. He was great. There’s something about great hosts having that talent like Jimmy Kimmel has, simply making it look easy.
Carrie just recently moved to a new label, signing with Universal Music Group Nashville, after years of you guys being together at Sony Music Nashville. Has that presented any challenges?
No, not really. In fact, it’s probably better, so it doesn’t look like one company has control or that it’s rigged or whatever. Now Mike Dungan [UMG Nashville chairman and CEO] gets 50 percent of the show. [Laughs]
Is there any joke material that you stay away from? Will you do political jokes?
There’s nothing that’s off-limits. Everything’s on the table. But with that said, we’re not up there to take sides. It’s crucial that our role is to entertain. Plus, with things changing by the minute, who knows where we’ll be as a nation by November?
What’s it like to connect with a joke or a bit and hear the laughter from the crowd after it connects?
Wow, there’s a bunch of emotions that go along with that. When we’re doing something that Carrie and I have worked on and we believe there’s potential for that connection, there’s a lot of anticipation in that moment. When we’re going to poke fun at someone in the audience, making fun of Luke Bryan’s dancing or whatever, I’m going to make eye contact with them and wait for their reaction. That’s the beauty of doing the show in front of a live audience. When it works, you’ve connected and you hear the laughter, that’s the best feeling in the world.
Who’s funnier off camera: you or Carrie?
Hmmm, not sure. If you were to ask my wife [actress Kimberly Williams], she would likely say: “Well, Brad thinks he is, but Carrie is easily the funnier one.”
You know, to have great material, you have to also strike out a lot if you want to hit some runs, and I’m totally fine with that.
Do you try your joke material out on your family?
Yes, so much so that if my kids had a reporter embedded with them at school, they’d know the entire monologue before the show airs. They hear it all.
Finally, I know that you have been playing music since you were a kid, but when did first you realize that you were funny?
I think that happened as a teenager, when I was playing somewhere like the local Kiwanis Club, I’d try and mix it up, throw in a funny song like “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival” [a top 20 Hot Country Songs hit for Ray Stevens in 1985] next to a somber version of “Amazing Grace” or something like that. It kept everyone on their toes.