During the run-up to tonight’s 54th annual CMA Awards, co-hosts Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker have hinted at an emotional tribute they will perform together during the show, but the pair has stayed resolutely mum about what song they are singing… until now.
Billboard has learned that they will sing Mac Davis’ classic “In the Ghetto” to honor the Songwriters Hall of Fame member, who died Sept. 29 at age 78. Though the poignant song about poverty and inequality has been covered by many artists, Elvis Presley’s 1969 rendition is the best-known version.
McEntire and Rucker’s recorded version of the song, which they cut a few months ago, will be available via all digital service providers at 11 p.m. CT tonight, immediately following the show.
For McEntire, her ties to “In the Ghetto” — and Davis — are deep. “I sang this song in the eighth grade for a 4-H talent show,” she exclusively tells Billboard. “I’ve been friends with Mac for years… When we decided to pay tribute to him, I knew it had to be this song. I’m so glad Darius said yes when I asked him to sing it with me.”
Both McEntire and Rucker remained close to Davis right until his death. “Mac, his wife Lise and I have been friends for many years,” McEntire says. “We’ve been on vacation together and hung out together at each other’s houses. We had Sunday dinner together the week before he passed away.”
“We met Mac back in the Hootie days, and he was always good to me,” Rucker says. “[He] always made me laugh, always made me feel like what I was doing was good. He’s always just been one of those guys that does that.”
The song chronicles the life of a young boy born in a Chicago ghetto, whose hardships lead to a life of crime and, ultimately, his death after he steals a car. The tune ends with another baby being born in the ghetto, whose life will likely follow the same downward path.
“The song is still relevant because the words still ring true today, as much as they did when Mac wrote them,” Rucker says. “It’s just amazing how a song can stand the test of time like that.”
“We’re still dealing with inequality in our world — social, racial, financial — the cycle hasn’t been broken yet,” adds McEntire.
CMA Awards executive producer Robert Deaton calls Davis “one of the greatest writers that ever lived. It is our honor to be able to celebrate his life and career on this year’s show. When I heard that Reba had already recorded the song with Darius, I knew it was meant to be.”
Fortunately, Davis got to hear the pair’s duet before he passed. “I saw Mac at the golf course a couple weeks before he died and he was talking about how much he loved the song, and how much he loved our version of it, which meant the world to me,” Rucker says. “After we lost him and we found out Reba and I were hosting, this just felt like the right way to honor our friend.”
–Assistance on this story provided by Tom Roland