Robert Deaton didn’t have much competition in the last few weeks for the hardest-working-man-in-show-business title. As longtime executive producer of the CMA Awards, he was shepherding literally dozens of artists into performance slots on the 50th-anniversary telecast, from statesmen as elder as Roy Clark to up-to-the-moment luminaries like Chris Stapleton and Maren Morris to… well, you may have heard that Beyoncé put in an appearance.
Deaton isn’t much interested in talking about any controversy involved with having the world’s biggest R&B star join returning superstar-outcasts the Dixie Chicks, figuring it’s the CMA’s job to address any social-media aftermath. It’s ironic that any viewers would have complained about a pop influx on a show that was otherwise dedicated far more than any other CMA telecast to honoring traditional country, and he takes pride in the veterans he was able to squeeze not just into the show’s multiple medleys, but video and photographic homages that played in the background. He took a break for preparing his next challenge, a slightly less star-filled CMA Country Christmas taping, to answer Billboard’s burning questions about Wednesday night’s telecast.
You had the best CMAs show ever up against one of the most excruciatingly suspenseful major sports events ever. Be honest: In the producers’ booth, did you ever look away from someone’s performance to sneak a look at the game?
I love baseball, but I will tell you the truth: I did not look one time.
The hit to the show’s ratings was surprisingly minimal, given that once-in-a-lifetime competition.
I would prefer not to be against the greatest baseball game of all time. But retaining 93 percent of our audience [from the previous year] was a miracle. We’ve got to be very happy with that. And it was the highest Wednesday for ABC since last year’s CMA Awards. But what I kept concentrating on was that this 50th [anniversary] is going to happen one time, and I had a job to do beyond a typical CMA Awards show. I had to honor 50 years, and it was important to me to do that if a hundred people watched. Putting Roy Clark onstage with Brad Paisley is a historic moment. Honoring Charlie Pride and Alabama and Reba and Dwight and Clint and Ricky and Dolly and Kenny [Chesney] had to be as great as it could possibly be, even if it was just for us in the room, because this is not going to come around again.
Speaking of veterans coming back: You had Taylor Swift on, and she almost counts in that category, having been away for three years. People were asking: Is this paving the way for her to reintroduce herself to country with her next project?
She’s an important artist and part of the legacy of country music over the last 50 years. This is what I wish people would do: Just enjoy it! I mean, do we have to ask the question, “Is she coming back or not coming back or making a country record or not making a country record?” It’s like Brad says in his song “Today”: Let’s enjoy right now. With the questions about Taylor, honestly, I don’t even think about it. She was and will always be important to country music and its history, and I wanted her to come, so I invited her.
Just when it seemed like Taylor would be the big surprise “get” of the show on Wednesday morning, you announced Beyoncé… and didn’t announce the Dixie Chicks, since that was a well-kept secret until they came on the air at 10 p.m. Did you have to go to extraordinary lengths to keep that under wraps? Did they even do a rehearsal in the hall?
Well, for a long time, there were maybe only four people that knew. We’ve been putting this together for a couple of months now. But we did rehearse it in the hall. It was a new level of… I’ve done these secret things before, but… I like the word “surprise” better than “secret.” Part of doing a great show is giving the audience something that they’re not expecting. It was harder to keep this a surprise. We kept names off wristbands. Even in the run-down, it was “TBA” all the way until showtime. Somehow, some way, we were able to pull that off.
We’ve heard the ask went out originally to Beyoncé and that it was up to her which country artist she wanted to perform with, and she picked the Chicks. Is that right?
That’s correct. What happened was, when her new album dropped in April, I listened to it that day like a lot of people did and thought it was terrific. The next day — can I mention another publication? — in USA Today, they gave a little synopsis of what each track was. Next to “Daddy Lessons,” it just said, “This is Bey’s CMA Awards performance.” [The actual USA Today verbiage: “Where’s Bey’s CMA Award?”] So I sent her team an email that day, congratulating them on the launch and identifying “Daddy Lessons.” I didn’t know whether they knew anything about our show or not, to be honest with you, but I explained to them that we’d had Justin Timberlake on the year before, and we’ve had different guests all through the years. I mean, we had *NSYNC singing with Alabama back in the day, and we’ve had Ray Charles and Julio Iglesias. … This is not something new, bringing someone outside of the genre in. It’s about music, right? That got the dialogue started. To me, it was a country song, and she was showing her Texas side. People can ask questions all they want, but it all comes down to the music, and the music will give you the answer in every situation. There are certain artists where the dots don’t connect and it’s not going to work, but this did so well. And it came together very organically, because the Dixie Chicks have been performing this song all year in concert. And the Chicks won entertainer of the year and are 10-time winners of the CMA Awards, so that fit with our 50th. And for me it was: We’re welcoming a new friend to the CMA Awards and we’re welcoming back an old one.
Even if it ends up being polarizing, to some extent, with a lot of people’s jaws dropping because they think it’s the greatest thing ever and others getting mad about it, that helps the show’s profile, right?
I can’t start chasing that. I’m not gonna start chasing, “Well, is this going to be a big viral sensation after the show?” If I do, I’m going to create a mess and it’s not going to be honest. There are things that have gone virtually social in Brad and Carrie [Underwood]’s monologue before, but we never chase that. I’m just trying to put together a show that the audience at home will love and that our room will love just for those three hours. I don’t get involved with the noise of what’s gonna happen in social media. The outside noise is only happening now, because all the way through putting this together, not one time did I give any of those [possibly controversial] things any thought whatsoever. There was no statement other than it being great and being about music.
With so many more performers than probably have ever been included in a single awards show before, it seemed like there would be a million things that could go wrong. And, ironically, the only thing that did was something as simple as Vince Gill reading the female vocalist nominees with epic-length pauses. It’s a testament to how you were able to make everything turn on a dime performance-wise that that stood out as the only flub.
Thank you. We were holding on tight, because honestly, the dress rehearsal was rough. [Laughs] We got all the mistakes out ahead of time. We were very blessed and lucky. And the Vince thing was our fault, to be honest with you. Because we prepare with long, short and medium packages, and then straight reads. And because we were going long, I decided to go with a straight read, and unfortunately it never got down to Vince, so we’re gonna take that one on ourselves. I called Vince yesterday and apologized: “Bro, I don’t know what happened.” He was like, “You know what? It was fine. Besides, I thought my line was pretty funny.” [Former host Gill made the moment with his improvised punch line: “See why I lost this gig?”]
The only other “wrong” thing was Reba acknowledging that she was thrown off in her lyrics during the Dolly Parton tribute by looking at Dolly in the audience. And she actually managed to sing that acknowledgement.
Yeah, I mean, how endearing is that? It’s live television, and it was beautiful.
With Randy Travis [still recovering from a stroke], there had to be some nervousness. He had sung an entire verse of a song at the recent Hall of Fame ceremony, but you just had him singing one word here. Was that an effort to lower the pressure on him and leave less to chance on live TV, or was it just more effective to have it be one word?
No, we thought it was effective. It wasn’t about Randy physically or anything like that. We just felt like, with everybody singing “Forever and Ever, Amen” together, to cap it off with him singing “amen” was the right thing to do. Not just with Randy but with Roy and some of the [older] artists… yeah, there was pressure about it, but none of that matters. Someone came up to me and said it was a big swing. “Boy, you really went out on a limb.” I never looked at it that way. I looked at it as, these people need to be honored. It was a lot of hard work and pressure, but it’s worth it, because this is who we are and what we do.
On the contemporary side, the biggest impact of the night seemed to be for Maren Morris [who will likely see her album Hero make a big jump on the Billboard 200 chart dated Nov. 19].
I think a star was born there. She’s dynamic and her vocal is just crazy good. And though I’d already worked with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on another project this year, it was her idea to have them and the McCrary Sisters. And then she won the [new artist of the year] award. The other thing that was really popular, too, was Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” as you can tell in the sales that have come out since. [Industry forecasters suggest the song could post a 60 percent sales gain in the week ending Nov. 3.]
What was the biggest challenge of the night for you?
My source of the most stress planning the show was being so concerned about leaving somebody out. I knew that was probably going to happen, because it’s 50 years and there’s so many deserving artists. But that’s what woke me up. For about three months now, I kept my radio in all my cars and at home tuned to classic country. In the George Strait/Alan Jackson number, there are several images that I was so happy to have in there, because even though nobody else may know who those images are, their family knows. For example, Jack Green’s in there. He was the 1967 male vocalist of the year. A lot of people aren’t gonna know who Jack Green was, but it was important to me. And Flatt & Scruggs are in there, and Johnny Paycheck and several that are not gonna be as recognizable as Waylon [Jennings]. These people deserve recognition. There are still things that in my mind I know I couldn’t get to, but I did the best I could.
I counted more than 20 distinct performance slots and over 40 songs, including everything that was a part of the three big medleys.
My hope was that the people in the room and the television audience could sit back and enjoy it, but for us, it was a very stressful time and I never relaxed. We were live-live. So just in the opening collaboration, we had Carrie’s band playing live and then Brad’s band playing live, with Vince, Ben Haggard, Brad, Roy Clark, Carrie, Charlie Pride, Alabama, Charlie Daniels, Reba McEntire, Dwight Yoakam, Clint Black, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson and finally Randy — and that’s in the first 10 minutes. But it was worth the stress. Because for example, on the Garth and Trisha duet, my goodness, we honored Roger Miller, and then to take it up another notch, we honored Keith Whitley, which I don’t remember happening any time in the last 15 or 20, and that time he represents was such an important part of our history.
Did all the classic song picks come from you, or did performers like Garth and Trisha have some influence on their parts?
The Dolly tribute I put together completely. The opening collaboration started with me, and then Brad and I got together and figured out that entire medley. I originally had Brad doing [Buck Owens’] “Love’s Gonna Live Here” [with Roy Clark], and then Brad wanted to change that to “Tiger by the Tail.” Then we went in with Brad’s band and cut a demo of it so we knew that it would work. Then Garth and Trisha came up with their medley, originally, and it was great, and then I made just a couple of suggestions, like Lynn Anderson and Roger Miller, so they went back and added those in. Garth and Trisha were so great to work with. What happened was, I got a little demo from Garth, which I still have. He just picked up a guitar and recorded it for me, and he sang his part and then he sang Trisha’s part, which was hilarious.
Brad and Carrie were paying tribute to CMA fashion from over the years with vintage costumes. Did the extra costume changes make things even more stressful?
Well, Carrie always does that many. She’s a pro — a real quick-change artist. I don’t think people quite understood that Brad was doing that, though. It was the comments later that were like, “Boy, Brad’s suit looked terrible.” I was like, well, yeah, that was from the ’60s! I don’t think they completely realized that’s what he was doing, but I thought it was fun.
You used to tape CMA Country Christmas two days after the CMAs. Now you’re doing it six days later, so does that offer everybody a moment to take a breath?
It does. The first year we didn’t have a gap at all; we shot it the very next day. And quite frankly, that was just stupidity. Then we started doing it on Friday, which was tough on crew. Since we moved the venue to the Grand Ole Opry House instead of the arena, we’ve got to have [almost a] week in between, because it’s a completely brand-new setup. It just evolved into something much bigger itself. This year we’ve got 18 to 19 artists on it with 22 songs, with everybody from Idina Menzel to Andra Day to Kelly Clarkson and Sarah McLachlan. I love it, because for me, it’s my homage to the old Bing Crosby shows. In past years we’ve had John Legend and Mary J. Blige, so it’s not just people within the format. We really do open that up to all genres. We just feel like everything’s based on music.
And the week after that you can start thinking about how to not make the 51st CMAs a letdown after the 50th.
And how not to be up against a baseball game.