“Everything scares me about this,” says Rucker with his trademark laugh over Zoom several days before the show. “There’s nothing about it that doesn’t scare me.”
But he knows he couldn’t be in better hands than McEntire’s, who has also hosted the Academy of Country Music Awards 16 times. “I think we’re going to have a blast,” predicts McEntire. “After the second step and second word at the beginning of the night, it’s a piece of cake.”
But even for McEntire, Wednesday night’s hosting duties will have a twist. As the pandemic rages on, the show moved from its usual home, Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, to the nearby Music City Center. The only members in the audience will be performing and nominated artists. With rigorous COVID-19 testing in place, two artists set to perform, Lee Brice and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, have already had to drop out to quarantine after they tested positive.
Among those still slated to perform are Chris Stapleton, top nominee Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Luke Combs; Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Brothers Osborne, Jenee Fleenor and Ashley McBryde will open the show with a tribute to Charlie Daniels, who died in July.
Sitting at least 6 feet apart on bar stools, McEntire and Rucker talked to Billboard about hosting the show, fond memories of Lifetime Achievement honoree Charley Pride, and how they are dealing with the ongoing coronavirus.
The CMA Awards will air live Wednesday on ABC at 8 p.m. ET.
You share a manager, Clarence Spalding. Is this how co-hosting came about?
Reba McEntire: He said, “What do you think about Darius co-hosting with you for the CMA Awards?” I said, “I love the idea!”
Darius Rucker: He came to me after everybody else had said yes [laughs] and asked me if I wanted to do it and I was so honored. I thought he was joking. When he said I was doing it with Reba, I just couldn’t believe it. Perfect.
How well do you two know each other?
Rucker: I think we were friends before this started. I consider that we were. Reba’s awesome. Every time you see her, she makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room she’s talking to. She always makes you feel special, and I’ve always enjoyed my time with her. I consider her a friend and we’re going to be really good friends when we’re done with this
McEntire: This is a friendship that’s growing and we’re going to have a blast at the awards show and just keep the friendship going.
Reba, you’re a veteran host. What advice do you have for Darius?
McEntire: We’ve talked about it: Listening to the director [in case] you’re running over, if we need to tighten things up or need to kill some time because someone doesn’t find their guitar or something’s going wrong. Just listen to the director, pay attention, be ready when they say, “Get out there on your mark.” [Darius is] a professional in everything he does, so I’m not worried. I think we’re going to have a blast!
Darius, what scares you the most about this?
Rucker: Everything scares me about this. [Laughs] There’s nothing about it that doesn’t scare me. I want to work really hard at it. I’ll be prepared. The most important thing: being ourselves and having fun. … For that three hours, our job is to make everybody have fun and maybe just forget all their troubles for that time while we’re playing music and handing out awards.
McEntire: A little selfishly, we’re ready to get back onstage and entertain. So what I’m really looking forward to is getting to be onstage, singing in front of some people on television and the few that’s going to be in the seats. It’s going to be a fun night for us because we get to do what we love to do, which is sing.
In addition to you two performing a secret duet together, Darius, Lady A is joining you on your hit “Beers and Sunshine.” They’ve gone through a tough time the last couple of months. Did you want to show some solidarity with them?
Rucker: They’re family to me. We’ve done a lot of stuff together. I believe in those guys. It just seemed like a great thing to do. They’re singing the harmonies on the song anyway, and so for me, I just wanted to do something cool with them. [CMA Awards director] Robert [Deaton] was cool with it. It’s going to be another great moment for me to be up there singing with them on my hit.
Reba, you’re also performing “Be a Light,” Thomas Rhett’s hit that was one of the first to come out during the pandemic to give us some hope. What was it like being on that track that also features Hillary Scott, Chris Tomlin and Keith Urban?
McEntire: I was flattered beyond words for Thomas Rhett asking me to be a part of that song. It’s “Be A Light,” it’s hope, it’s encouragement, and this will be the first time we all get to sing it together because when I recorded my part, it was just Dann Huff, the producer, and myself in the studio. So it’s going to be a lot of fun to be on the stage with Thomas Rhett and everyone to sing that wonderful song.
Charley Pride is getting the Lifetime Achievement Award. What has he or his music meant to you?
McEntire: Oh, it’s meant the world to me, his friendship, getting to open the show for him in 1983 at San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. He’s really into astrology. Every time I sit down, he still says, “You’re an Aries.” He’s really into that. He’s a sweetheart of a guy, great representation for country music.
Rucker: He paved the way for me to be here and I’ve been a fan my whole life. Getting to be friends with him and getting to talk with Charley is something that I cherish so much. The times we do get to hang out, I say, “We talk, I listen.” I just love to hear stories, and he’s always got advice for me and it’s always something I need to hear and I love him. There’s nobody in the business more deserving of this award than Charley.
Charley co-hosted with Glen Campbell in 1975. It’s the last time a Black musician hosted. Darius, what does it mean to you to follow in his footsteps?
Rucker: Being such a big fan of Charley and watching his career, every time something like this comes up, I feel nostalgic. I feel great that I’m doing something that Charley Pride did. To this point, it’s just me and Charley. It is something I’m really proud of and something I will cherish. I’m going out and being the best that I can so Charley will be proud of me.
McEntire: He will be.
It looks like we’re heading into several more months of the pandemic. What’s your advice for people as we continue to go through it and how do you feel the pandemic has changed you?
Rucker: I definitely appreciate what we do for a living a lot more than I did before. Even if you had a month off, you could see a date on the calendar that you know you’re going to be playing that day. Not having that date has really made me realize how much I love playing for people. You can get jaded, but I think abut it every day — how much I just want to get out and play music.
McEntire: It’s been hard on our crew, on our second families, our band, everybody we get to work with out on the road, the people we get to perform with on the road and also the venues. It’s hard on a lot of people and their families. But what you have to do to get through that is look at the great things you’ve gotten to do: I’ve fallen in love during the pandemic. I’ve had a blast with that. I’ve raised a garden. I’ve gotten to ride my horse more. You just have to look on the bright side of the things you get to do. You’re so grateful for the things that you get to do instead of the things that we’re not getting to do. Think positive. That’s the best way to get through it.