After two pandemic-induced years of touring shutdowns, the return of the Country Music Association’s annual celebration feting country music’s touring industry was rung in with a heightened sense of joy and gratitude. On Monday evening (Jan. 30), members of country music’s touring elite gathered at Nashville’s Marathon Music Works for the much-anticipated event.
“After two years away, we are glad to be back,” said CMA CEO Sarah Trahern in welcoming the industry members. “The touring industry was one of the hardest hit during the pandemic, and the individuals in this room know that better than anyone. In the midst of some really tough times as we all gather, I’m continually amazed at the resilience and passion that shine through from the people in this room, which I think is a true testament to how much you all recognize and value the power of music.” Trahern added that as touring ramped back up, the folks being saluted “didn’t miss a beat. You picked up right where we left off and delivered some of the biggest, most engaging tours we’ve ever seen. All of you continue to move the ball forward for country music, and I and all at the CMA are forever grateful for you.”
Twelve-time CMA Award winner and two-time CMA entertainer of the year winner Keith Urban hosted the festivities. Following the evening, he told Billboard what the celebration of touring means to him. “It’s all about them, not the artists they work with,” he said of the evening. “It feels right. I’m so glad the CMA started this nine years ago. I was honored to be here to do this.”
Members from the touring organizations of Kenny Chesney, Luke Combs and Dierks Bentley took home the lion’s share of the award wins during the evening. Members honored from Bentley’s team were Chris Reade (lighting director of the year) and fiddle player Dan Hochhalter (touring musician of the year). The win represented a full-circle moment for Hochhalter, who was nominated in the same category as one of his heroes: Jimmy Mattingly, fiddle player for Garth Brooks.
“This is crazy,” Hochhalter said. “Back in 1998, I was a 16-year-old kid obsessed with country music. I got tickets to a Garth Brooks show and saw this guy shredding fiddle and electrifying the audience. I wanted to be that guy, so to be nominated in this category is crazy.” He also thanked Bentley for supporting his entire road family during the height of the pandemic. “You have done a lot for me and my family, especially when the world shut down and he did so much to [make sure] we knew we still had a job.”
Make Wake Artists’ Chris Kappy, who has guided Luke Combs’ career toward becoming a two-time CMA entertainer of the year winner, was named manager of the year.
“Seven years ago I moved to Nashville and met a young songwriter who was playing chicken wing restaurants named Luke Combs and started driving the van for him: selling merch, mixing ears, loading in and loading out… and came very close to going broke and insane,” Kappy recalled in accepting his honor. He added, “I get to look around this room now and see the amazing camp of Luke Combs’ team over here, and my team at Make Wake, and the amazing people that get to bring music to fans every night. We get the opportunity to let people escape from their worlds and from their cubicles and from the mundane things they have to go through … none of that happens without the people in this room. You are the superheroes, you are the great people who do this. Thank you for everything that you do.”
Additional members of the Combs touring crew that were recognized with CMA Touring Award wins were Tyler Hutcheson (tour video director of the year), Michael Zuehsow (monitor engineer of the year) and Jerry Slone (production manager of the year).
In Chesney’s camp, winners included John Stalder (coach/truck driver of the year), David Farmer (tour manager of the year), Jill Trunnell (tour videographer/photographer of the year) and Robert Scovill (front of house engineer of the year).
Farmer gave thanks to Chesney’s longstanding touring crew, saying the loyalty and camaraderie there is “a testament to Kenny and the culture he’s created, and I hope I can keep cultivating it.” He ended with what has become a mantra among Chesney’s touring family and longtime fans, leading members of Chesney’s touring crew in shouting, “Who lives like we do? We do!”
Essential Broadcast Media’s Ebie McFarland was named publicist of the year. The Essential Broadcast Media PR roster also includes Chesney, George Strait, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, Morgan Wallen, and Ashley McBryde. Live Nation’s Brian O’Connell was named talent buyer/promoter of the year. O’Connell previously earned the CMA Touring Awards’ lifetime achievement award in 2018.
In his acceptance speech Monday evening, O’Connell shared the quote, “No individual whistles a symphony.” He added, “I have two symphonies: my staff and everybody in this room. I love this event. We usually see each other in parking lots.” (The last bit drew laughter from the room.)
He also nodded to the overall touring community, saying, “David [Farmer] works with Kenny, Kenny is an AEG client, but we are all together on the road. We all know what we go through. This trophy, this honor, will always be very close to my heart, and everybody in this room will be close to my heart, because nobody really knows what we really do out there — for good or for bad, mostly for good … In my mind everybody on this piece of paper [the nominees] are talent buyer/promoter of the year.”
Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium was named venue of the year. Talent agent of the year went to Austin Neal, who last year launched The Neal Agency, home to artists including Wallen, Bailey Zimmerman, HARDY, Ernest and more.
“I did not prepare a speech, because [WME’s] Jay Williams and Joey Lee were in the same category, as well as [WME’s] Nate Towne and [Wasserman Music’s] Mike Betterton — a lot of people that I look up to and have learned a lot from in this business. I’d like to thank my artists and their teams for supporting us and being crazy enough to go and start a little agency last year … it’s been a crazy year coming out of COVID … and here’s to another great year.”
During the evening, Urban also shared that he knows well the hustle, determination and stamina involved in being on the road day in and day out.
“I only had one day job and it was working at a lighting company called East Coast Lighting in Brisbane, Australia,” he said. “We rented out lighting to bands. That was my day job and a band wanted me to join their band in case their guitar player didn’t show up one night. They didn’t have a job for me, so they hired me as their lighting operator, thinking I can watch the show every night and if one night he doesn’t show up, I can miraculously get up there and play. I quit my job at East Coast Lighting and became a lighting roadie. We were playing five nights per week. The crew would come pick me up, we’d cram in the front of this truck, drive to the club we were playing at, unload the truck, set all the stuff up, and at about 7:00 I would get changed and I was the opening act.
He went on to recount how he “would play 30 to 40 minutes then get changed and get behind the desk, operate lights, at the end of the night, pack it all up and get home about 2:00 in the morning and do it all again the next day. I did this week after week, hoping one day this idiot wouldn’t show up. And sure enough, one night he did not show up, and I got to get onstage and play [with the band]. Because of what I did for so long with my brothers on the road, I have enormous respect for all of the crews.”
Another sweet moment was the onstage remembrance of Randy “Baja” Fletcher, the inaugural recipient of the CMA Touring Awards’ lifetime achievement award and the production manager for Urban. Following Fletcher’s passing in 2021, his daughter Natalie joined Urban’s tour. Natalie took the stage to share a remembrance of her father and how being on the road impacted her. Backstage following the event, Urban shared with Billboard of Natalie joining the tour, “It was this divine intervention. We lose Baja and there is no one like him, and suddenly Natalie is there, representing every part of his personality and sunny disposition. It was like this continuation with her on the road. It was healing for us, and it was healing for her and that spirit was as strong as it was with Baja.”
The evening concluded with the presentation of the CMA Touring Awards’ lifetime achievement honor to CAA Music Nashville’s John Huie. During his career, Huie helped break artists/bands including R.E.M, The Police and Joan Jett, and revamped Christian music touring while working with artists including Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. He has also worked with a who’s-who of country music artists, from Carrie Underwood to Faith Hill to Zac Brown Band.
A video montage featured artists including Grant, Smith, Jett, Lady A and Brown, all commenting on the impact he has made in their careers. Grant thanked Huie for “finding the best stages for me for almost 40 years,” while Lady A’s Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood and Hillary Scott thanked Huie for being an “honest champion” for their career.
Taking the stage, Huie thanked his wife of 37 years for her support, as well as many of those he has worked with along the way, and praised former CMA Touring Awards lifetime achievement honorees, including Tony Conway and O’Connell. He also noted that the first concert he attended, when he was 9 years old, was on Aug. 18, 1965 to see the Beatles. “Best gift my mom ever gave me,” he said. He recalled teaming with Ron Baird to launch CAA’s Nashville office, as well as working with Richard Lovett.
“Richard’s big thing is, ‘Take care of each other, associates first and good things will happen.’ I still today think, ‘Take care of the people you work with day in and day out and good things will happen,’” Huie said.
Huie also paid tribute to the late Ron Baird (“God bless Ron Baird, who passed away from Parkinson’s. It was a special time with Ron, Rod [Essig] and myself. We know Ron’s here in spirit as well”) and gave a special shoutout to Urban (“You talk about sustainability and fighting the fight, how hard he’s worked to become a successful artist … he did whatever it took to be successful, and those are the guys you want to root for.”) And finally, he closed with a tribute to his extended musical families.
“I do want to say that the family is the key to everything. Not only the CMA family, but the country music family. The CMA family, what Sarah [Trahern] has done in running that operation and Tiffany [Kerns] has done with the foundation — can you imagine the Rock Music Association? The Pop Music Association? You’d never get anybody in the room to agree on anything. But they created an organization where we drop our guard and bring our best selves to the table and make this industry better, not only for the consumer, but for each other and for the world. Thank you so much for this, it means the world to me.”
See the full list of CMA Touring Awards winners below:
Business manager of the year: Stephanie Mundy-Self – Farris, Self & Moore, LLC
Publicist of the year: Ebie McFarland (Essential Broadcast Media)
Manager of the year: Chris Kappy (Make Wake Artists)
Venue of the year: Ryman Auditorium
Touring musician of the year: Dan Hochhalter (Dierks Bentley)
Tour videographer/photographer: Jill Trunnell (Kenny Chesney)
Tour video director of the year: Tyler Hutcheson (Luke Combs)
Lighting director of the year: Chris Reade (Dierks Bentley)
Production manager of the year: Jerry Slone (Luke Combs)
Tour manager of the year: David Farmer (Kenny Chesney)
Talent agent of the year: Austin Neal (The Neal Agency)
Coach/truck driver of the year: John Stalder (Kenny Chesney)
FOH (front of house engineer of the year: Robert Scovill (Kenny Chesney)
Monitor engineer of the year: Michael Zuehsow (Luke Combs)
Talent buyer/promoter of the year: Brian O’Connell (Live Nation Nashville)