On October 20, 1967, Bobbie Gentry, fresh off of her career-defining smash “Ode To Billie Joe,” and fellow hit maker Sonny James stood on a makeshift stage at Nashville Municipal Auditorium to host the first Country Music Association Awards Banquet and Show. At a podium sheathed in a cloth banner that declared country music is “best liked worldwide,” they presented 10 trophies in the non-televised ceremony, bestowing the inaugural entertainer of the year award to Eddy Arnold.
A year later, thanks to sponsor Kraft, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans hosted the 2nd annual CMA Awards on NBC. Fast forward five decades to today (Nov. 2), which sees another co-ed duo, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, helm the 50th edition of the longest running annual televised music awards show.
As the Country Music Assn. prepared for its golden anniversary episode, it faced the delicate two-step of saluting its esteemed past while heralding the current crop of honorees. “Honestly, finding that balance was the first thing I worried about,” says the program’s executive producer Robert Deaton. “Then I realized it’s not necessarily about a song or how many artists sing on the show, it’s about making sure the tone of the night reflects the last 50 years.”
As is now their tradition, Underwood and Paisley, returning for their ninth year, met with the CMA Awards’ producers and writer David Wild at Paisley’s house in August to begin crafting the show. “Brad and I are extremely involved in the writing of the script,” says Underwood, who remembers growing up watching the CMAs, “sitting on the floor in front of our television, hoping for my favorite artists to win and yelling at [the TV] when they didn’t.” But planning the 50th “felt different from the get-go,” she continues. “This year there will be so many amazing artists present and so many special moments in the show that Brad and I will just have to keep it all running smoothly so the viewers can focus on the legends.”
To that end, CMA CEO Sarah Trahern sent letters to all living past entertainers of the year, inviting them to attend and walk the red carpet, if not appear on the actual broadcast.
Throughout the night, past winners from all categories will be recognized — through bumpers featuring highlights from previous CMA Awards shows, in performances and presentations, and via audience cutaways. Citing the reverence the Oscars bestow on their veterans, Deaton says, “I’d love to look down to the front row and there’s Loretta Lynn and right next to her is Barbara Mandrell. We want to feel the history in the room.”
In years past, the CMA Awards have imported artists from other genres not only to expand the reach, but also to create such water cooler moments as Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake’s exhilarating duet last year. Within three days after the 2015 show, more than 20 million people had viewed their performance of “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Drink You Away” online, Deaton says.
“This year, we’ll see a little bit less of that because we have so many great artists in our format to highlight,” Trahern says. “But we always want to do things that are unexpected.”
It’s all building up to the three-hour show where country music’s past, present and future will collide. “It’s really about highlighting the best of our history, the best of now and the best of what’s yet to come,” Trahern says.