Marketing Department Changes at CMHoF

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has appointed Michelle Sabo to the post of Director of Marketing. Additionally, Meg Hershey has been promoted from Marketing Coordinator to Marketing Manager.

Sabo will report to Senior Director of Marketing Jeff Schwartzenberg, where she will be involved in development, management and implementation of the museum’s advertising and promotional strategies, in addition to overseeing the museum’s internal client service function.

Sabo brings more than 15 years of marketing experience to the museum, including six years as director of marketing at Outback Concerts in Nashville and over four years with Feld Entertainment in Pittsburgh where she worked with Disney on Ice and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus brands. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from West Virginia University, and a Master of Business Administration from Belmont University.

Hershey, who joined the museum in 2010, will manage marketing initiatives while providing strategic planning and budget input for the museum. Hershey graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor of Science in Public Relations.

TNN Debuts Nov. 1

The Nashville Network will relaunch Thurs., Nov. 1 with a mix of live, syndicated, first run programming and digitally restored content. With WSMV-TV as the local flagship affiliate, TNN will be available over-the-air on channel 4.2, on Charter channel 91, and on Comcast later in November.

Jim Owens Entertainment and Luken Communications partnered to bring back the iconic country music lifestyle channel. Jim Owens Entertainment, headed by Lorianne Crook and husband Jim Owens, produces the nationally syndicated show Crook & Chase and the radio staple The Crook & Chase Countdown.

TNN’s first-run programming will include The Country Vibe, Crook & Chase, and The Rick & Bubba Show. Also on the schedule is Gaither Gospel Hour and Larry’s Country Diner. “We’re basing it right now on classic programming,” explained Crook. “We want to remind people where TNN came from and why it was so important to country music. Right now about 80 to 85 percent of the programming is classic—the shows that people love and remember like Nashville Now, Music City Tonight, Crook & Chase, specials and awards shows. People will get to see stars like Garth Brooks, Alabama, and Randy Travis at the very beginning of their careers. In addition to the music, we’ll have lifestyle programming covering cooking, sports, and motor sports.” This will include Lorianne Crook’s Celebrity Kitchen, and Southern Fried Fitness.

Fans can visit the TNN bus in downtown Nashville following the CMA Awards (11/1). It will be near the Whiskey Bent Saloon.

The original TNN existed from March 7, 1983 to September 24, 2000, when it became The National Network, and then Spike in 2003. Since the end of TNN’s run, Crook says fans and members of the music industry have asked her if it would ever return. Around 2008, she started researching the TNN trademark, and discovered that it expired about 8 months prior. “We [Jim Owens Entertainment] applied for it because we felt it was a valuable brand, because here we are 12 years later and people still ask about it,” she said. “We truly didn’t know what we’d do with it, we just knew it was valuable. We’re very serious and very dedicated to being conservators of the TNN brand. We want to make sure TNN is beneficial to the industry and that it truly entertains the fans.”

By happenstance they met Henry Luken of Chattanooga based Luken Communications. “We each had what the other one was looking for,” Crook continued. “Jim Owens Entertainment has tremendous deep vaults of video of country music history, shows we had done over 15 years on TNN. At one point, we were doing 70 percent of the TNN primetime programming. Henry has all the technology and had launched other networks.” Luken Communications is home to Retro Television® (RTV), My Family TV, TUFF TV, PBJ, MyCarTV and Frost Great Outdoors. Its networks reach approximately 80 percent of all U.S. households via a blend of over-the-air, cable and satellite television. TNN will have headquarters on Music Row and in Chattanooga.

The Nov. 1 soft launch will lead up to the major push on March 7, 2013—the 30th anniversary of network’s debut. “Everyone seems to be so thrilled about it,” added Crook. “Garth Brooks did some promos for us, as well as Vince Gill, Little Big Town, Ray Stevens, and Ricky Skaggs. We want to stay true to what people expect from TNN, but we also want to grow into the future, so it’s going to be fun to see how it evolves.”

Original announcement posted on Apr. 18 here. or

Little Big Town Spins Up “The Tornado Tour”

Little Big Town has announced plans for  The Tornado Tour in 2013. The 25 city tour will also feature special guests Kacey Musgraves and David Nail in select cities. The tour kicks off Jan. 31, 2013 in Murray, KY.

“We’ve been looking forward to announcing this tour for so long and can’t wait to hit the road next year,” said Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman. “It’s going to be so much fun to share more music from this record with our fans and we feel very honored to have Kacey and David opening for us. They’re incredible artists. This new album means so much to us and to be able to showcase all of these songs is a dream come true.”

CMT will have an exclusive pre-sale for The Tornado Tour. Visit CMT’s Facebook page for the exclusive presale code to get tickets. Additionally, the network exclusively premiered Little Big Town’s music video for new single “Tornado” earlier today (10/31) and will feature it every hour throughout the day.

For a complete list of The Tornado Tour dates, click here.

Little Big Town, from left, Phillip Sweet, Karen Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook and Kimberly Schlapman, stuffs backpacks to support the Feeding America Tampa Bay Food Bank’s Kids Café program on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. Little Big Town has teamed up with ConAgra Foods in support of its Child Hunger Ends Here campaign to help raise awareness of the more than one in five children in America who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. (Brian Blanco / AP Images for ConAgra Foods)

Benefit Snapshots (10/31/12)

Pictured (L-R): Joe Don, Gary, Addyson Clark, Addyson's Mom and Jay

Rascal Flatts hosted a Halloween performance for patients and families at Vanderbilt’s Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital yesterday (10/30). Following the performance, the band visited rooms of children unable to attend the performance.

“Rascal Flatts Surgery Center” was established at the hospital in 2010 recognizing the group’s on-going dedication to the pediatric surgical unit.


Pictured (L-R): Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander, Tracy Lawrence, and Austen Adams, Allen Blevins, Derek Crownover, Don Schlitz. Photo: Alan Mayor

Over 250 of Nashville music industry insiders gathered at Nashville’s The Ruby for the 7th annual End of the Row Party last Thursday (Oct. 25) raising over $7,000 for the T.J. Martell Foundation. The event was hosted by the law firm of Crownover Blevins and sponsored by Merrill Lynch’s Raj Patnik and Zach Richards, BPV Capital Management and The Ruby. 

Performers included Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander, Don Schlitz, Tracy Lawrence, Stephanie Lambring, Sammy Arriaga, Jenna Paulette, Bryson Jennings, Caitlyn Smith, and Jen Foster.


Pictured: Little Big Town with Crosby & Nash. Photo: Shahar Azran

Little Big Town joined Crosby & Nash at the TJ Martell Foundation’s 37th Honors Gala held at Ciprianis in New York on Tuesday (10/23). Both groups performed at the sold-out event.

DISClaimer Single Reviews (10/31/12)

The Mann Sisters, Brad Paisley

Trick or Treat!

It’s Halloween, and no one knows how to craft a topical tune like a country artist. In this case it’s a duo, The Mann Sisters. They have a song called “Halloween Night” that’s good enough to be played any time of the year. I’d love to hear what they can do with a non-holiday song. In the meantime, give them a DisCovery Award.

Regionalism isn’t especially valued in a musical genre that aims for national appeal. But I don’t care where you’re from, “Southern Comfort Zone” will make your heart beat faster and your emotions swell up. It is also, sonically speaking, an amazingly well-produced record. It earns Brad Paisley a richly deserved Disc of the Day prize.

DUSTIN LYNCH/She Cranks My Tractor
Writer: Dustin Lynch/Brett Beavers/Tim Nichols; Producer: Brett Beavers & Luke Wooten; Publisher: Big Music Machine/Super 98/Golden Gears/Chrysalis One/BMG/Chestnut Barn/Warner-Tamerlane/Contentment/Made for This Music, BMI; Broken Bow (track)
—The starter motor of the tractor starts things, then it’s off to the races with a spirited bopper. His warm baritone delivers the country-boy lyric with elan, and the lightning licks on fiddle and electric guitar provide the rest of the considerable energy in the track.

Writer: Leslie Satcher/Vince Gill; Producer: none listed; Publisher: Sony-ATV Tree/Vinny Mae/Songs of Kobalt, BMI; BGM (
—She sings with such verve that she veers off pitch here and there. But she means well.

TOBY KEITH/Cold Beer Country
Writer: Toby Keith/Bobby Pinson/Marc Fortney; Producer: Toby Keith; Publisher: Tokeco Tunes/Bobby’s Lyrics & Livestock/Cold Beer Country/Do Write, BMI; Show Dog Universal (track)
—What with “Beers Ago,” “I Like Girls That Drink Beer,” “Red Solo Cup,” and now this, Toby seems to be in a bit of a rut in the lyric department. Melody-wise, however, he’s refreshingly creative, because this jazzy swinger laced with clarinet is as delightful a track as I’ve heard all year. Deserving of massive airplay.

SCARLETTA/Right Here, Right Now
Writer: none listed; Producer: Paul Taylor; Publisher: none listed; Average Joe’s (track) (
—This trio consists of Aubrey Collins and her partners Benji Harris and Nathan Stoops. I’d have mixed the boys’ contributions a little louder, since they sound kinda muffled on this debut single. The interwoven fiddle player is a plus.

MARK COOKE/Stay With Me Tonight
Writer: Pete Sallis/Mark Carson/Kris Bergsnes; Producer: J. Gary Smith & John Smith; Publisher: Cherry Heart/Mark Carson/Cauley Orleans/BMG/English Ivy/Chrysalis One, BMI/SESAC; CVR (
—They’re both brokenhearted, so why not shack up? The accompanying piano is a overwhelmingly loud, whether he’s softly seductive on the verses or pleading on the choruses.

JOSH TURNER/Find Me a Baby
Writer: Josh Turner/Frank Rogers; Producer: Frank Rogers; Publisher: Songs of Universal/J. Otis/House of Sea Gayle, BMI/ASCAP; MCA Nashville (CDX)
—Pleasant, gently bopping and inoffensive, but not exactly gripping listening.

BRAD PAISLEY/Southern Comfort Zone
Writer: Brad Paisley/Chris DuBois/Kelley Lovelace; Producer: Brad Paisley; Publisher: none listed; Arista (CDX)
—This manages to be both anthemic and splendidly rocking at the same time. Even if you’re not a Southerner, you’ll get caught up in the lyrics evoking a Dixie homeland. The throbbing undertow backbeat is just as inspirational. The sound collages that ebb and flow throughout the track are brilliantly mixed. A total home run, right down to the finale “Look away, look away.”

THE MANN SISTERS/Halloween Night
Writer: Alexandra Mann/Lauren Mann; Producer: Alexandra Mann, Lauren Mann & Derek Cintron; Publisher: Tanner Boy, BMI; Tanner Boy (CDX) (
—Tonight’s the night! These gals have the soundtrack for trick-or-treaters. It’s appropriately spooky and minor key. Here’s even better news: it’s quite well written, and they sing it splendidly.

HANNAH McNEIL/I Gotta Leave You for Me
Writer: Hannah McNeil/David Hansen/Rob Higgins; Producer: Rodney Good & Rob Higgins; Publisher: Positively Platinum/Hansen/Nilknarf, ASCAP/BMI; RED/Spinville (CDX) (
—A woman leaves a domestic violence situation. The country-rock track rumbles along splendidly, and she delivers the range-challenging melody with vocal assurance. Well done.

JOE BACHMAN/Small Town Rock Stars
Writer: Mark Irwin/Josh Kear/Chris Tompkins; Producer: New Voice Entertainment & Arlis Albritton; Publisher: Oceans One/Year of the Dog/Darth Buddah/Big Loud Shirt/Big Loud Songs, ASCAP; JPB (CDX) (
—The local band covers Springsteen, Skynyrd, Hank Jr., Buffett and Rick Springfield, basking in the good-time glow of being big fish in a small pond, getting the girls and free beer. They know they’re going nowhere, but they’re having a ball. You’ll smile and rock along.

Bobby Karl Works the BMI Country Awards

Chapter 413

Tom T. Hall

This year’s BMI Country Awards gala bestowed its highest honor on The Storyteller.

Revered tunesmith Tom T. Hall was presented with the BMI Icon Award at the Tuesday night (10/30) event. The organization’s Icon silver bucket will share shelf space with his Country Music Hall of Fame trophy as well as the 31 prior BMI Awards he has won. Hall has six songs that have been broadcast more than one million times apiece, as certified by BMI.

“I have never assumed I was anybody,” the droll star known as “The Storyteller” said during his acceptance speech. “I got a phone call from Del [Bryant] about six weeks ago and found out I was somebody special.

“I thought you might like to know what an Icon looks like,” he said to the crowd. “They’re old, aren’t they?” Hall is 76. “Miss Dixie and I met at this banquet 45 years ago,” he added, referring to his wife. “This might be the second luckiest night of my life.”

Hall was saluted in song by The Avett Brothers singing “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Dailey & Vincent performed his “Can You Hear Me Now.” Justin Townes Earle essayed “The Homecoming.” Toby Keith and Scotty Emerick did snippets of “Ravishing Ruby” and “I Like Beer,” songs they often perform on the road, then did a full-band romp through “Faster Horses.”

“You’ve influenced everybody in this whole damn room,” said Toby to Tom.

Charlie McCoy, Kenny Vaughn, Dirk Johnson, Harry Stinson and Mike Bubb, dubbed “The Icon Band,” did an instrumental medley of Hall faves.

The Avett Brothers salute Tom T. Hall

The other big winners at BMI included Dallas Davidson and Luke Laird, who shared the Country Songwriter of the Year honor. Laird and Rhett Akins co-wrote the Rodney Atkins hit “Take a Back Road,” which was named Song of the Year. Sony/ATV made it a clean sweep of the performance-rights banquets by winning Publisher of the Year, the same honor the company picked up at both SESAC and ASCAP.

(L-R): Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, Tom T. Hall, Luke Laird

This was the 60th annual BMI Nashville celebration. The organization was the first to present country-music awards to songwriters, thanks to the late Frances Preston.

“Sometimes when a woman puts her arms around you, it changes your life forever,” eulogized Layng Martine Jr. Preston died in June. “Frances gave us respect. Frances built this building we’re all in tonight. Frances was all about community, all about inclusiveness. The warmth, closeness and camaraderie that bind the Nashville music community together today are very much in the image of Frances Preston. She was the first person to stand up and wrap her arms around songwriters. Sometimes, there is nothing like a hug.”

“Tonight, we dedicate this awards gala to Frances W. Preston, who will inspire us forever,” added BMI chief Del Bryant. Based in New York, he said that Hurricane Sandy’s devastation there was much on his mind.

Nashville-based Jody Williams, assisted by Clay Bradley, presided over the presentations. Bradley dubbed the banquet, “the greatest party in country music.”

Lee Brice

Short of the CMA Awards there is no event where more stars gather on the Nashville social calendar. Tuesday’s attendees included Jake Owen, Randy Owen, Randy Scruggs, Randy Montana, Billy Montana, Billy Currington, Billy Burnette, Billy Dean, Ira Dean, Dean Alexander, Thomas Rhett, Rhett Akins, Lee Roy Parnell and Lee Brice. This is a lucky week for Brice. At this time last year, “Crazy Girl,” the hit he co-wrote for Eli Young Band, was at No. 1. This week, the No. 1 record is Brice’s rendition of “Hard to Love.” He is also newly engaged, with an April wedding date planned.

That’s not all the stars who were there. Not by a long shot. Let’s try an alphabetical run at this: Ashley Monroe, the Avetts, The Band Perry, Brantley Gilbert, Brett Eldredge, Chris Young, Clay Walker, Colt Ford, Dailey & Vincent, Dustin Lynch, Eric Church, Florida Georgia Line, Frankie Ballard, George Strait, Hunter Hayes, J.T. Hodges, Jennifer Hanson & Mark Nesler, Jerrod Niemann, Justin Townes Earle, Kenny Chesney, Kix Brooks, Lari White & Chuck Cannon, Luke Bryan, Martina McBride, Matraca Berg & Jeff Hanna, Miranda Lambert, Pat McLaughlin, Paul Overstreet, Rodney Atkins, Ronnie McCoury, Rose Falcon, Sam Bush, Shawn Camp, Steve Holy, Tanya Tucker, Toby Keith, Tyler Farr and Wynonna & Cactus Moser.

Moser published two hits recorded by The Band Perry. The former Highway 101 member received a standing ovation as he took the stage. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident several weeks ago.

The room also held a contingent of Country Music Hall of Fame members. In addition to George Strait, Randy Owen and Charlie McCoy, this group included Bobby Braddock, Harold Bradley, Ralph Emery, Jo Walker-Meador, Jim Foglesong and Jimmy Fortune of The Statler Brothers.

Terry Bradshaw and Toby Keith

TV stars? BMI had those, too. NFL great Terry Bradshaw was in the house, not to mention stars from the ABC drama series Nashville – show creator Callie Khouri, plus Clare Bowen, Eric Close, Jonathan Jackson and Robert Wisdom. “It’s the mayor,” I said in greeting Wisdom. “I’d vote for you!” His character on the show is running for mayor of Music City. Wisdom was also a star on the acclaimed series The Wire.

BMI was the most fabulously decorated of the PRO banquets. Since it is held “at home” in its own building, there’s no venue rental. Instead, attention is paid to transforming an office and parking garage into a party wonderland.

Formal chandeliers were hung over the lobby’s reception desk. Grouped disco balls hung from various spots. Large, stem-like parabolas and curves were topped with white floral arrangements. These same stem structures were repeated in the dining area, as were the massed disco balls. The garage’s columns were covered in mirrors. Tables held exotic floral centerpieces on sequin-covered tablecloths. Some were amaryllis and tulip arrangements, while others featured yellow orchids with poppies or bird of paradise blooms with pink orchids.

Songwriting greats abounded in the crowd. Among such fabulons were Al Anderson, Lewis Anderson, Bob DiPiero, Bobby Pinson, Busbee, Dean Dillon, Luke Laird, Roger Murrah, Dennis Morgan, Norro Wilson, Thom Schuyler, Steve Bogard, Troy Verges, Wynn Varble, Craig Wiseman, John Scott Sherrill, Josh Leo, Keith Stegall, Liz Rose, Casey Beathard, Will Rambeaux and Ed Hill.

Not the least of these was Lamont Dozier. When Doug Johnson offered to introduce the Motown master to Jerrod Niemann and me, we jumped at the chance. I bowed and told the legend that I even have his solo LPs. “That’s the first time I’ve had chills on my legs!” exclaimed Niemann afterwards.

We dined on arugula and beet salad topped with pistachios and blue cheese in a peppery dressing. The main course was tender steak medallions with fingerling potatoes and asparagus.

The music industry throngs to this event. I spotted John Esposito, John Grady, John Ozier, Jon Freeman, Mark Wright, Mark Bright, Mark Brown, Mike Dungan, Sherod Robertson, Michael Knox, Lisa Ramsey, Lisa Konicki, Leslie Tomasina, Bobby Cudd, Bobby Rymer, Jerry Crutchfield and Gerry House.

Not to mention Luke Lewis, Scott Siman, Sarah Skates, Dan Hill, David Crow, David Briggs, Ansel Davis, Jenny Gill, Joe Galante, Allison Jones, Evelyn Shriver, Sarah Trahern, Tom Collins, Pat Finch, Andrew Kintz, Nashville School of Arts principal Greg Stewart, Barry Coburn, Tandy Rice, Charles Sussman, Blake Chancey, Denise Stiff, Eddie Bayers & Lane Brody, Arthur Buenahora, Erv Woolsey, Woody Bomar, Roy Wunsch & Mary Ann McCready, Shannon Houchins and Frank Rogers.

BMI desserts are usually served afterward in the lobby. This year, colorful food trucks were pulled into BMI’s circular driveway. They offered a delectable variety of yums, in addition to the bon-bons, pastry cups and other sweets inside.

Broken Bow and RED Launch Red Bow Records

Rachel Farley, Joe Nichols

Broken Bow Music Group and Sony Music’s RED Distribution have formed Red Bow Records, a label partnership to be located in Nashville. The new imprint will be headquartered on Music Row, and BBR Music Group will handle its creative and promotion initiatives. Red Bow’s initial artist signings are hitmaker Joe Nichols and newcomer Rachel Farley. The debut single from Farley will be released in early 2013 with the album to follow next summer. 

The news was revealed at a press event this morning (10/31) at Hard Rock Cafe, where Nichols signed his recording agreement in front of his team and members of the media.

“We could have done this ourselves; however, we have a longstanding, trusted friendship and professional relationship with RED Distribution,” says Benny Brown, President/ CEO of the BBR Music Group. “This new venture was a great way to further that relationship, which expands both our business models and creates new opportunities for both companies and for the artists on our labels.”

“We are thrilled to be expanding our very successful relationship with BBR Music Group through the launch of Red Bow Records,” says Bob Morelli, President RED Distribution. “Benny is a Nashville visionary and we are excited to be partnering with an executive of his tremendous talents and accomplishments on this new venture. This agreement further underscores RED’s ongoing commitment to supporting independent labels and artists with innovative distribution and artist development solutions.”

Additionally, BBR EVP Jon Loba and Sr. VP of Promotion Carson James announced the appointment of radio promotion veteran Renee Leymon as Red Bow’s VP of Promotion. She most recently worked with Arista Records, and previously spent 12 years at Lyric Street Records. Contact her at [email protected].

Current Stoney Creek Records SW/MW Manager of Promotion Shelley Hargis will move to Red Bow as National Director of Promotion. She has spent seven years with the label group. Reach her at [email protected].

Kendra Whitehead is joining the label as West Coast Manager of Promotion. Whitehead has spent the last 12 years in real estate, and brings 20 years of sales experience to the team. She will be based in California’s Silicon Valley and can be reached at [email protected].

During the press conference, Loba recapped BBR’s success from the ground up. He said Brown founded the company after noticing label mergers had left talented executives and artists without homes. He believed an independent company could give some artists more attention than they received on major label rosters. Since its inception, BBR has succeeded in areas where many other indies have not, including radio, sales, and awards wins. Today it also houses management and publishing divisions. “Once there was an expectation of failure,” said Loba of BBR, “now there is an expectation of success.”

Nichols’ career includes ACM and CMA Awards, four Grammy nominations, four No. 1 singles, and 2.2 million records sold. Up-and-coming artist Farley, a 17-year-old Georgia native, has spent much of 2012 opening for BBR flagship artist Jason Aldean’s My Kinda Party Tour.

Additional staff and artist announcements are forthcoming.

Weekly Register: Swift’s “Red” Becomes State-Of-The-Art Marketing Textbook

It’s not easy to grab top headlines during a week loaded with Awards, label restructuring and a massive hurricane, but Taylor Swift is used to making the difficult look easy. This week the Big Machine international superstar became the first female artist of the SoundScan era to have two million-selling album weeks. Red scanned 1.208 million units this week. About 38% of that total was in digital format. (Swift’s Speak Now logged 1.047 million 10/31/10).

The blockbuster marketing ballet which helped accomplish this exceptional feat will no doubt be discussed and dissected in label boardrooms across the country in the coming weeks. It included high-profile partnerships with Walgreens and Papa John’s Pizza plus dozens of other brands and a Nashville radio remote. Swift worked the tube tirelessly—Letterman, Good Morning America, The View, Ellen DeGeneres, Katie Couric and there were layers of social and traditional media. Dropping the album on Monday allowed an extra sales day.

Orchestrated like a major movie release, the impressive Red marketing campaign has written itself into the music industry record books as a state-of-the-art album sales textbook.

Swift also dominated across other charts. In the tracks department she scored 13 entries on Nielsen SoundScan’s Top 200 Digital Tracks chart and was all over the Digital Genre Country tracks chart (the country chart only lists some of her tracks due to Billboard’s recent decision to dictate what is and isn’t country music). The singer/songwriter also owned the Top 3 positions on the Top Catalog Country Albums chart.

In the end, Swift’s dramatic showing plus week two for Jason Aldean (Country No. 2; 116k) and a holiday debut from Lady Antebellum (No 3; 25k) upped YTD country sales from last week’s -2.4% tally to a +1.4% adding a welcome dose of good news to an already event-filled week.

Robert Deaton: Getting Awards Show Ratings

(L–R): Robert Deaton and ABC’s Mark Bracco

A candid and in-depth look into Robert Deaton’s journey from playing on a local country music television show in North Carolina at age six to becoming the Executive Producer of the CMA Awards television special. Originally published in the 2012 MusicRow Awards print issue.

Robert Deaton is a lucky man. His two career dreams have come true—to work in film/TV and contribute to country music. He’s insanely busy and has won hundreds of awards, but his relaxed manner instantly puts others at ease. When Deaton starts talking about work, his enthusiasm and excitement makes it clear he loves what he does.

Currently Deaton is Executive Producer for the CMA’s Awards, Music Festival and Country Christmas shows on ABC, plus the new TV singing competition Duets. He and business partner George Flanigen have also created numerous music videos for an impressive list of artists through their company Deaton Flanigen Productions.

In spite of Deaton’s numerous accomplishments he started this interview by recalling how his company got its first major country music video assignment. “George and I incorporated in 1985,” he says. “MusicRow magazine reviewed a video we did with Eddie DeGarmo and said, ‘Deaton Flanigen, Nashville’s best kept secret.’ After reading the review and seeing the video, James Carlson from Columbia called AristoMedia’s Jeff Walker and asked ‘Who are these guys?’ That perfect storm resulted in us doing a major country music video and got things rolling.”

The CMA Awards remain, however, Deaton’s most influential annual time block with respect to country music. The impact of those three hours on the radio and SoundScan charts, the TV networks, with media gatekeepers and inside Music Row boardrooms is intense. What follows is the story of how Deaton rose to this position of trust in 2007 and the numerous decisions which it requires him to make when considering artists, presenters, hosts and ratings…

MR: How did your journey to becoming Executive Producer of the CMA Awards start?

Robert: It began with being asked to chair the CMA TV committee. Lon Helton was President of the organization that year and felt I would get along well with Walter Miller (CMA Awards Producer) and be able to interact with him from a creative standpoint in a way no other chair had been able to do. The previous year I co-chaired the TV committee with Paul Corbin. You have to understand that just being around all these brilliant people on the CMA Board was amazing and to chair anything was a great opportunity, especially the TV committee. I was still pretty much a stranger to corporate structure (i.e. how to run a committee) and had a big learning curve. So I became the TV Chairman and Walter Miller taught me a great deal about TV. I tried to soak up everything.

MR: But being Chairman of the TV committee is a long way from producing the CMA awards, right?

Robert: I looked at CMA leaders like Joe Galante, Tim DuBois, Lon Helton, Mike Dungan, Luke Lewis, you [David Ross] and Jeff  Walker. Everyone had their area of expertise and I kept thinking, “But what can I contribute? How can I make my mark within the organization?” I wanted to create a TV broadcast for the CMA Music Festival. It had been tried in the past, but not strategically. With the blessing of the TV committee, and my own money, I shot B-roll at the CMA music festival. It had already moved to the new stadium. I put together a six-minute pitch piece to show CBS with graphics, sound design and interviews. Attorney Joel Katz got me a meeting with Les Moonves in Los Angeles. I told him, “I could tell you what it is, but let me show you what it really is.” So I played the piece for him and held my breath. After it was over Les looked at me and said, “I totally get this. Let’s do it.” And that’s how we sold the first year.

(L–R): Robert Deaton, Walter Miller and Vince Gill

MR: That had to be like winning an award! But now you had to follow through and create a show.

Robert: Yes, it was “mission accomplished,” but it was also just beginning. The TV committee sent me back to LA to find a producer and director for the new show. On that trip I met Gary Halvorson who became our Director and still directs the music festival to this day. Gary is brilliant, with tons of experience and a deep love of music. I returned to Nashville and reported to CMA Executive Director Ed Benson and TV Co-chair Larry Fitzgerald, “I’ve found a director, but not a producer yet.” Larry changed my life because he said, “I have a problem.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “This isn’t fair,” said Larry. “You came up with the idea, shot the video, went to LA and then sold it. You should produce it.” That was the very first time I thought about producing it. A week later Larry repeated his comment to the committee. I said, “I’ve never done this before, but for this one moment I want to take off my CMA cap and put on my personal hat. I’ve never asked anything personally, but if you deem it’s appropriate and feel I can do the job, I’d like to be considered.” So I left the room and they voted. When I returned I had been named Producer. I called Gary Halvorson and off we went.

MR: That must have been a heart pounding afternoon.

Robert: Yes, but then the hard work began. The first few years for the festival show were rough because it was this huge TV elephant. I was determined to make great TV and therefore part of the festival culture had to be changed. It rocked the boat, but slowly and surely we got there.

MR: Flash forward a couple of years. CMA decided they needed someone in place to take over from Walter someday and that person was you.

Robert: Walter and I had become very close, so I had his blessing. The first year I was Consulting Producer. The second year they upped me to Producer, which was the best of all worlds. I was still working under Walter and doing what I love most, the creative. Walter and I approach things differently. I came from film so I’m really about the presentation, whereas he produces more from a director’s point of view because he began as a broadcast director. For example, Walter was more into the artist staging, where they’re going to perform, walk to and how the movement works within the song. I was more about lighting and set design. So we were great together. The next year the CMA asked me to take over even more of the producing responsibility, still with Walter’s approval.

MR: Sharing Walter’s experience and knowledge must have been like a graduate course in TV?

Robert: It was great. I had all the fun and Walter had all the pressure because he was the one having to decide who was going to be on the show. All the really hard decisions, which I do now, he was doing at that time. And by the way, he was simply amazing. When I finally transitioned to Executive Producer, about five years ago, Walter became Consulting Producer and is to this day. That’s when I got the pressure and the phone calls that come with the job.

(L–R): CMA CEO Steve Moore, Producer Byron Gallimore and Robert Deaton

MR: What about the nuts and bolts decisions like choosing hosts?

Robert: Brooks and Dunn hosted the year before I became Executive Producer but decided they didn’t want to do it again. ABC suggested a no-host approach kind of like the Grammy model which we did that first year. For the second year I wanted a host. “Who are you thinking about?” ABC asked. I absolutely wanted Brad and Carrie. Everyone said, “Well, Brad will be great,” and I replied, “Carrie Underwood is the last person you need to worry about.” Carrie had hosted some CMA Music Festival segments I had produced and she was great, it was like a light turned on. I didn’t push it, but I knew I was going to bring it back up. Later, I went to the TV committee and said, “This is who I’m thinking of and why.” Brad’s a great player, singer and represents the traditional side, but he’s also a comedian and the way he thinks is left of center. Carrie, with her pop culture/American Idol following represents the contemporary side. She’s beautiful, well spoken and also an amazing talent. I knew these two would have chemistry together as our hosts. But honestly, they are unbelievable together and have completely exceeded everyone’s expectations. And here’s another thing we were missing out on. Without a host, there’s no focus point to do the heavy media lifting. We didn’t have someone that could talk to People magazine and Entertainment Weekly and all the newspapers and radio stations and do the promos. We missed out on that for a year. So I went back to ABC expecting a fight, but after I laid it all out, they said, “No, we get it now. You should do that.” And that’s how we ended up with Brad and Carrie.

MR: What’s great about an inspired choice is after the fact everyone says, “Yeah—no brainer.” What about some of the other pressures that come with wearing the Executive Producer hat?

Robert: There’s booking, site surveys, design, lots of things, but hands down the most fun part is creating ideas for the artists, the song presentations and interacting with Brad and Carrie. That’s a blast. The hardest part is booking the show and having to tell someone they are not getting a slot. We always book the Entertainer Of The Year nominees, but then the question is, what will make the best TV show? Every year there are more than 20 artists that have a valid story and good reasons to be on the show. I agonize over the process because the artists are depending on me. There’s only two weeks out of the year I can’t sleep and it’s during the CMA awards. I called Luke Lewis, Joe Galante and Mike Dungan for advice because they are in similar pressurized positions. They all said the same thing—    “It will never get any easier, you have to live with it.” Dungan also said, “Frankly, I hope booking the show never gets any easier for you, because if it does it means you don’t care anymore.” So I’ve always remembered their advice, this is supposed to be difficult. But once we know who is on the show we start listening to the music and it all turns to fun.

MR: What about those special, never-before-seen TV moments?

Robert: Those pairings are usually very organic. Over time you learn that certain things work. For example, a hit song with a superstar artist will always make a big rating. An unknown song with a superstar artist can produce a good rating, but nothing like combining Taylor Swift with a hit song, or the year we had Kid Rock singing “All Summer Long.” And then there are certain songs that transcend, like “Believe” with Brooks and Dunn. We’re always looking to somehow create new pairings plus give a nod toward where we came from, like the Glen Campbell tribute this past year. I was proud of that on a lot of different levels. At first I was going to have Keith Urban on guitar, very intimate at the front of the stage. I was home one night listening to Glen’s records and asking myself, “Have I chosen the right songs?” when I realized these are some of the best records of all time, they sound so good. So I called my Music Director Steve Gibson and said, “I want to do them exactly like the record, full strings, everything. It needs to be done that way.” Then I found a past clip of Glen performing “Gentle On My Mind” on the CMA Awards. So I thought we’ll start the segment cold with Glen and then move to our guys. I still needed someone to host the segment, to come out and talk about Glen. Ultimately, instead of one host, we decided to have each artist—Vince, Keith and Brad—say a little something about Glen. I started getting chill bumps and knew we had it right. It was a long, eight minute segment which is an eternity in TV, but our ABC partners believed the tribute was the right thing to do and never asked me to cut out even a second. That was really cool.

Robert Deaton

MR: Brad and Carrie’s opening is one of everyone’s favorite segments. How does it come together?

Robert: This past year we got together at Brad’s house in Pacific Palisades earlier than usual, about 3 months out front of the show and started with general pop culture ideas. We’ve discovered that nothing is too old for us to use, even if it happened in the beginning of the year. Why? Because the Awards are like country’s annual corporate meeting and this “speech” is about everything that happened throughout the year. For example, six months before the awards I read that Tim and Faith were coming out with dolls and knew we’d want to use them somehow. One thing we don’t want to do is hurt anybody’s feelings. We want to be funny, playful, but not be hurtful. Over time we’ve defined and refined Carrie and Brad’s roles. It’s ok for Brad to do something stupid, but it’s not ok for Carrie to act like Brad is stupid. Like when Brad got the songs mixed up between Lady Gaga and Lady Antebellum, “Oh I love them,” and starts singing a Gaga song. Carrie is the one who, like the mom says, “Brad you sweet thing, that’s not Lady Antebellum that’s Lady Gaga.” Brad comes with a million ideas and Carrie will maybe not say anything for a half hour in a writer’s meeting and then will say the absolute thing that we should do, plus Carrie’s comedic timing is perfect. She knows to wait in the beat after Brad does something crazy. We’re so fortunate with both of them. So we start generalizing and eventually narrow it down to about six minutes. Creatively, it is the hardest thing we do and it changes right up until we air.

MR: Picking presenters?

Robert: One viewpoint is we should only book presenters from within the country genre. Some people don’t want presenters coming in from LA—TV or movies. My opinion is we need to be as broad as possible. If we can get Hugh Jackman or Reese Witherspoon we absolutely should. People sometimes only think about those three show hours, but I also have to think about getting us press. If I release that Gwyneth Paltrow—one of the biggest rated portions of our show over the last several years—is going to perform or be on the show we land in People magazine, Entertainment Weekly and every newspaper across the country. We cannot buy that kind of publicity and we need it to create awareness. Booking Paltrow to sing “Country Strong” met so many things in my criteria, it was the perfect storm. I had 25 phone calls from LA congratulating me on that booking because they understood how big it was. It also gave me something to promote for the last half hour of the show to help keep the ratings up. Maintaining ratings during the last half hour, and especially the final 15 minutes is almost impossible even though that is when the Entertainer is revealed. So in the last couple of years we’ve tried to develop strategies to keep viewers from leaving.

MR: Do you know the winners in advance?

Robert: I never know who the winners are, even during the show and don’t want to know. I’ll take a polygraph test on it. I would never criticize Walter, but sometimes he was too good at guessing who was going to win. He’d have someone perform and they’d win an award right afterwards and it looked like he knew. It happened to me once with Lady Antebellum. But usually there are lots of big surprises which work great for television. The first year Blake Shelton won Male Vocalist he was surprised and I was too. It was well deserved, but when he stomped up those steps it was like he was saying, “I’m living every moment of this, going up these steps one at a time and grabbing my place.” There is no better TV than those unscripted kinds of moments. I just have to make sure I capture them when they happen. I have to be able to say, I’ve arranged everything the best I possibly can, now let’s see what else happens.

MR: You’re like a party planner. You provide the guest list, create some party games and then hope the guests have a good time.

Robert: Exactly. I’ll run the show schedule with my directors, and we’ll discuss things like where the standing ovations might happen. For example, I carefully selected a list of audience people to shoot during the Glen Campbell segment so we could see their reactions while watching the tribute to this legendary performer. But every year something surprises us. I’m only as good as the artists we have on the show and the songs they are performing. With each performance I let the songs tell us what to do and try to see that the artist wins. Sometimes I’ll spend a lot of money on a set like I did last year with Blake and the dancers, other times I can showcase Reba with a spotlight and have her just sing a great song.

MR: This event’s importance cannot be overestimated. It’s the format’s most visible moment. Do you appreciate the magic you are helping to create?

Robert: You have to understand something about my background. When I was six years old I was on a local country music television show in North Carolina as a bit player. I grew up around Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely. I remember being in an empty classroom with Ray Pillow, a member of the Grand Ole Opry thinking the coolest thing I’d ever seen was the gold velvet in his guitar case! I met Jerry Lee Lewis backstage in one of those gymnasiums where they used to play and shook his hand when I was only seven. He was sitting in a chair with a big ole cigar and no shirt on. I remember hanging back stage with Buck Owens and know what it feels like, what it smells like to be in that room with Buck Owens. When I get stressed I pull out my favorite record and sit and listen to it—Buck Owens Live From Carnegie Hall. It got to the point where I was at the Grand Ole Opry so much I could call Mr. Bell, the security guard at the time, and just say “Hi, I’m coming down.” And he’d let me backstage. I’d sneak in the back corner of Roy Acuff’s dressing room and see all of them in a circle talking and playing.

Knowing that as my background, you can understand why it was such an unbelievable feeling for me when I got through my first show as the TV Chairman. That show was the first time that I felt I’d contributed to something that really made a difference in our genre. Look around my room at the albums I listen to—music from Jim Reeves, Ronnie Milsap and Jerry Reed. I’m not in this business by accident. I love this music, the genre and being part of this community and it runs deep from when I was a kid.

Blue Sky Riders Announce Album, Benefit Show

Blue Sky Riders

Blue Sky Riders, the vocal trio of Kenny Loggins, Georgia Middleman and Gary Burr, will be releasing its first album, titled Finally Home, on January 29.

Together, the seasoned songwriters will perform material from the forthcoming release at The Franklin Theatre November 16 and 17 to benefit NSAI. The showcases follow a recently completed 14 city tour (including a 5 night residency at New York’s Feinstein’s At Loews Regency).

Select singles from the forthcoming album and an EP, Live At The Rutledge, are currently available for purchase on iTunes.