CMA Awards Leaders Sarah Trahern, Robert Deaton Discuss Navigating An Awards Show During COVID-19

Pictured: Sarah Trahern (Courtesy CMA), Robert Deaton (Photo: Jessica Lewis)

Last week’s 54th Annual CMA Awards, held at Nashville’s Music City Center, ushered in new winners in several categories, including Eric Church taking home his first Entertainer of the Year honor, and Maren Morris picking up her first Female Vocalist, Single and Song of the Year wins.

The evening also marked the first time country music’s artists had gathered all in one room for an awards show in 2020.

In addition to navigating an array of COVID-19 protocols to ensure the safety of attendees, the CMA’s team also prepared backup plans in case performers or presenters had to drop out of the show at the last minute—which did happen to a few artists and performers including Lee Brice, Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, Lady A, Rascal Flatts and Musician of the Year winner Jenee Fleenor.

The Country Music Association’s CEO Sarah Trahern and CMA Awards Executive Producer Robert Deaton discussed the planning that went into many of the awards show’s special moments, such as tributes to the late Charlie Daniels, Kenny Rogers, Joe Diffie and Mac Davis, and bringing artists together safely in one space.

MusicRow: The CMA Awards marked a milestone in terms of awards shows in 2020, as the nominees and performers were all in one room. When you first brought this idea to artists and their teams, what was the initial response, and what has feedback been like since the awards took place?

Robert: Here’s the thing, we never move forward with anything without the approval of our artists and management. In fact, as we were trying to figure out what we were doing months before we knew nominations I reached out to about 10 different managers who I figured may have nominated artists and posed the question, saying ‘If we can, and we don’t know if we can, but if we can have artists in the room, do you think we would get the support of the artists or would you rather not participate and keep it all separate?’ And every response was, ‘My artist would like to be in the room with the other artists and keep it as much of a regular CMA Awards show as we can. If we’re allowed to do that and we can have the protocols set and it can be safe.’ From the very beginning we included artists and managers in on that decision. All the responses I’ve gotten, even the night of the show, we were about 2.5. hours into the show and Eric Church pulled me aside and said ‘The greatest thing about tonight is that we’re all together, we’re celebrating music and I’m seeing people that I haven’t seen in such a long time.’ From my viewpoint, it’s what the artists wanted to do. I think they really enjoyed themselves and it was a healing thing for them.

Most of the performances were live. How did you decide which would be live and which would be pre-taped?

Sarah: Because of COVID restrictions, even though we had two performance stages in the room, we had to allow time between performances to totally clean stages between the live performances, so a lot of the scheduling had to do with the stacking of the performances and allowing appropriate distances between live acts.

Robert: In order to be safe and follow COVID protocols, we could not have every performance live. We had to have at least a minimum of 15 minutes between each stage to be able to clean and move people on and off in a safe manner. I put together the board, first, to get a great show run and a great flow from beginning to end, and out of that, that’s how we decided who would be live and who would be pre-taped.

What did it take behind the scenes, especially for the fuller-band performances such as those from Brothers Osborne or Jon Pardi, to pull that off?

Robert: Those performances weren’t any more difficult than say, the Thomas Rhett performance. The thing about it is, this year we had to really cut down on the number of live musicians. For example on Brothers Osborne, that’s a pre-recorded track, but vocals are live and so was John Osborne’s guitars. To be safe and follow protocols, we couldn’t have that many people onstage mic’ing instruments and so on. If you look at 22 or so performances, that’s a lot of musicians. We just did not have the bandwidth to go “live, live” like we normally do on most of our performances on a normal CMA Awards year. When you cut down the number of people onstage, the setup goes a whole lot quicker, so it really was not any more difficult than Darius and Reba’s performance with just the two of them onstage.

Charley Pride, Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee were all in attendance, with Pride performing with Jimmie Allen. Were any special/additional precautions taken to make sure they took part in the show safely?

Robert: No, our protocols were in place for everybody. It was an extremely safe environment. The entire crew, everybody in Zone A, wore both masks and face shields. The precautions on a whole were so tight and safe, I don’t know what additional precautions could have been taken beyond what we did.

Sarah: I agree with Robert. We worked for months with the CDC and local health officials to make sure this was the safest environment possible and all protocol was strictly enforced across the board.

Several performers, including Lady A, Rascal Flatts and Jenee Fleenor, announced just before or during the broadcast that they were not taking part in the show due to COVID. What changes did that necessitate during the show?

Robert: There were no changes going into the show. The awakening moment for me was when Lee tested positive. We thought this could happen again, so we decided to overbook the show. Just overbook, so that in case someone fell out we were still okay and we could end on time. So we overbooked the show and I had an idea called “The CMA Flashback” taking one or two performances from the past and we showed things that were important to us. For example in 1983 at The 17th Annual CMA Awards we had Dolly and Kenny perform “Islands in the Stream.” We thought that could be a really fun moment to revisit that performance if on the day of show somebody called and said they can’t come for whatever reason. And so, we were just preparing ourselves. Luckily we didn’t have to use any of those backup plans.

This year’s show celebrated a few country greats that passed away earlier this year. Instead of featuring more obvious Charlie Daniels hits, songs like “Texas” and “Trudy” were included. And Darius and Reba honored Mac Davis with “In The Ghetto.” How did everyone decide on those particular songs to perform on the show?

Robert: I put together the Charlie Daniels tribute because I wanted to represent Charlie Daniels. I wanted it to feel like Charlie Daniels. When you do a tribute, you think of the song and then you think of the artist that it fits. So when I thought of “Long Haired Country Boy,” I thought of an acoustic guitar in the middle of the room with Dierks Bentley. When I heard “Trudy,” I thought it sounded like a Brothers Osborne song. And the same goes with Jason Aldean on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and Ashley McBryde on “Texas.” To me, it’s about honoring the artist and getting the right song with the right artist to perform that song. It’s interesting though that with “In the Ghetto,” I did not put that together. Reba had already cut that song, prior to Mac passing away, with Darius. So when that happened and Reba said she’d cut that song, it made obvious sense for them to do that. And again with Joe Diffie. Who doesn’t love “Pickup Man?” I thought, once again, I heard Jon Pardi. It just sounds like a Jon Pardi song. It’s a little bit of A&R., putting together the right song with the right artist. That’s how those songs are chosen.

Sarah: I think that’s truly one of Robert’s gifts. A few years ago he had Little Big Town do “Wichita Lineman” for Glen Campbell. These tributes aren’t meant to be an all-inclusive In Memoriam, which we’ve only done once on the show. One of Robert’s gifts is that he can think about the artists and knows the songs so well that he has a great ability to put the right artist with the song to make it pop.

We saw that this year’s ratings were down, just like most awards shows this year. How do you interpret those ratings?

Robert: The way I interpret is that everybody is down. In historic measures. These are unprecedented times and this has been an unprecedented year for most of us. We understood that we were going to be down. We can’t sit here and look at all of our friends who have shows and they’re down and expect that we wouldn’t be. I don’t know the exact reason why that is, but we all knew this was going to happen.

Sarah: Overall we expected to be down based on the trends in television today, but still strongly believe in the impact of live programming. And although the demo was lower, we were pleased with our total viewers number. We drew a significant audience, in today’s landscape, and were able to keep them throughout the show.

There were plenty of first wins in several categories—Entertainer, Female Vocalist, Song, Single. What do you feel this signals about the country music landscape as a whole?

Sarah: We felt like the nominees across the board were particularly strong this year and that’s one of the reasons we were so excited to be able to pull off a live show in front of other artists. Some of my favorite moments were the support people gave each other in the room when they won. Whether it’s the females leaning in to support Maren and her three wins, or Luke Combs jumping to his feet to celebrate Eric Church. It’s what I think is so special about our country music community and what the CMA Awards are all about. It was an exciting night for a new generation of country artists.

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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