The 2016 CMT Music Awards are just a few days away (June 8), and the launching pad for the CMA Music Festival will be one of country music’s most-talked about events of the year.
At least, that’s what awards show producer John Hamlin hopes. He tells Billboard that making the show live up to that hype is his goal — year after year.
“Every year, these shows need to have a different personality,” Hamlin, who is president and CEO of Switched On Entertainment, admits. “If you made the same show year after year, that would be too predictable. But balancing that with being unpredictable — which is what a lot of people expect from the brand — that is what I’m trying to do. The goal is always to create a fresh and interesting new show. Every awards show should have a narrative, a point of view that represents that network or that evening. I think it’s very clear that the CMT Music Awards — over the last 10 years — has created its own lane, which is a good thing. But it is challenging to top yourself year after year so that you aren’t doing the same thing all over again.”
The producer allows that producing a music awards show in 2016 is a little different than it was a few years ago. “Fortunately, the audience for all music is evolving with the times in that people aren’t buying albums anymore, they are buying songs. But the most important fact of what is happening in contemporary popular music is that the fans are not as genre-loyal as they once were. What I mean by that is if you ask a kid if they are a country music fan, and they will say yes. Then, look at their iTunes list and what’s in their phone. You’ll see plenty of country music, but you will see a lot of other things. People today just like music. It doesn’t matter which genre program directors or record companies are defining it as. They just like what they like.”
There’ll be plenty for fans to like about on Wednesday’s telecast, which will feature several all-star (and all-genre) performances — including one that Billboard can exclusively announce. “I’m thrilled to tell you that we have Pitbull performing with Leona Lewis and Cassadee Pope. They’re going to perform his new single ‘Messin’ Around,’ which he recorded with Enrique Iglesias, and we’re having Leona and Cassadee do the Enrique part. That’s a classic example of different worlds colliding that is unexpected, but when you see it, it fits. It works.”
Other pairings include Cam and Fifth Harmony (“Their collaboration is seamless. We’re doing one of Cam’s songs, into one of theirs, and back and forth. The construction of how that works together is super cool”), as well as Dierks Bentley and Elle King (“That’s probably my personal favorite song on the show. The second I heard ‘Different for Girls,’ I fell in love with it. It’s a great statement for Dierks to make. Elle is such a tremendous singer, and the message of the song has such a broad appeal”).
But there are a few collaborations that do feature an all-country lineup, such as Keith Urban with tour partners Brett Eldredge and Maren Morris, of which Hamlin says, “Keith is going to perform with his tour package on his single ‘Wasted Time.’ We suggested to him that we do the song as a collaboration with Brett and Maren, who are on tour with him. He didn’t blink. He loved it. That should be exciting.”
And on the other end of the cross-over spectrum, there’s Blake Shelton teaming up with Country Music Hall of Fame members the Oak Ridge Boys on “Doing It to Country Songs,” a song that Shelton himself brought to CMT’s attention. “That was Blake’s idea. He asked if he could perform that song, and I thought that was exactly what we need. Not only is the song a great one with a classic country group, but it fits into the mosaic of what we are trying to do. We’ve got all these different artists and genres, but also Blake Shelton reaching back into what he loves, which is classic country. We’re trying to touch a lot of different things, old and new, current and classic. It’s falling into place like a jigsaw puzzle, and it fits together perfectly.”
There will be some solo performances on the 2016 CMT Music Awards, as well, with Chris Stapleton, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Thomas Rhett each performing their latest radio singles. That, coupled with all of the aforementioned pairings, sets the bar pretty high. What does Hamlin do for 2017? He doesn’t offer an answer, but does admit that question will enter his mind before he leaves Bridgestone Arena. “Can we discuss this about 9:30 on Wednesday night? Anybody who produces these shows will tell you that it is a year-round job. You finish the show, and before you ever leave the venue, you think about what you could have done better that night, and what you will do better next year. You’re already saddled with the idea of how you can make things even better next year. That’s just a part of the job.”