The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
A highly respected television producer and award-winning director, Robert Deaton’s career has skyrocketed from launching a pioneering video production company, in which he created more than 500 music videos for a variety of chart-topping artists, to producing some of the most successful properties on network television.
Since 2007, he’s served as executive producer of the CMA Awards on ABC. He is a two-time Emmy winner for ABC’s Monday Night Football opening. Deaton is at the helm of CMA Fest and CMA Country Christmas, annual network shows that are consistently high in the ratings and spotlight the broad appeal that places country music at the forefront of American culture. Deaton produced Sports Illustrated: 50 Years of Beautiful on NBC, as well as the “Soul to Soul Las Vegas” residency for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. He was executive producer of The Passion with Tyler Perry for Fox Broadcasting and currently serves as executive producer of the Billboard Music Awards on NBC.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
Fayetteville, North Carolina. Although when I was smaller, I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Were you musical as a kid?
Yeah, I grew up playing in bands, playing guitar and playing in orchestras. I started playing trumpet in the fourth grade and then was in garage bands all through high school. One of my best friends is actually a famous musician now, he’s the lead guitar player for Widespread Panic. We played together in bands growing up.
What was your dream then?
The dream was always, from the very beginning, to be in the entertainment industry. I had no other dream. I’ve been around this since I can remember. Any memory that I have [from childhood] was always in a theater or at a TV station. My father was in radio and television. He was a celebrity anchor at WECT TV, which was Channel 6 in Wilmington, North Carolina. On Friday nights, he had a country music show that all the Grand Ole Opry cast would come through to play if they were in the region. I can remember as a kid going to a Jerry Lee Lewis concert and sitting beside Jerry Lee when I was six years old.
The whole time I was growing up, I was all about getting out of school. I was just in a hurry. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to be doing in entertainment, I just knew I was going be doing something. So from elementary school on, it was about getting done so I could move to Nashville.
What happened when you finally got to Nashville?
Johnny Rosen had this company called Fanta Sound. He was teaching audio over at Vanderbilt and I was taking all of his classes. Then I started getting into photography and started going to up to Maine for the Maine Photographic Workshops. The doors started opening first on the TV side.
One of my first gigs working in this industry was when I was a production assistant on the Crisco commercials with Loretta Lynn out in Hurricane Mills. One week I worked on that and then the next week I did something over at the old RCA building with Jerry Reed. I thought, “I have made it!” I was a 19 year old kid and one week I was hanging out at Hurricane Mills with Loretta and the next week, Jerry Reed.
What was your path from there?
I got offered a job at Channel 2. I was in the news for the first year and then the next couple of years I was in the marketing department, shooting all their promos and marketing. That was a great experience.
I stayed there a couple of years and then I met a guy named George Flanigen. We started a company called Deaton Flanigen Productions and we did probably 300 music videos. We were doing music videos for Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Alabama and Diamond Rio. George and I were fortunate enough to win two CMA Video of the Year awards. One for “Independence Day” with Martina and one for “Believe” with Brooks & Dunn. It was great fun. We created “Are You Ready for Some Football?” for ABC. We were doing lots of commercials and marketing promos for syndicated TV shows.
It was going really well but times change and things shift. When streaming came in, the business shifted, so I knew I needed to make a transition of some kind. I got on the board at the CMA and that was a big life change for me because of all these great people on the board. Donna Hilly, Joe Galante, Connie Bradley and Kitty Moon were on the board. Eventually they made me the chairman of the TV committee. That’s how I started working on the CMA Awards.
How did that happen?
All these board members [I was surrounded by] were trailblazers, so I was trying to figure out a way to contribute. I decided my way to contribute was to try to make the CMA Music Festival into a television broadcast. I went and shot sizzle reel at what I think was our second year at the stadium after we shifted from the fairgrounds. I shot it and put together a pitch piece. I flew out to LA and pitched it to CBS and they bought it.
I was doing that to contribute, I wasn’t necessarily doing that to actually produce a show. It was Larry Fitzgerald that said I should be the one that produces it. They voted on it and that was my first network show, The CMA Music Festival. So I started producing the festival and then a couple years later, they asked me to do the awards. I’ve been doing the awards ever since. I also created the CMA Christmas show, so I went from doing one television broadcast to three, which has been great.
Do you have time for anything else?
I’m always trying to shift and reinvent. A couple of years ago, I did my first film which was called Benched. I’m currently working on two other movies right now, one for next year. Also, the doors have opened back into the music recording process. The first project that I did was a Christmas record for Michael W. Smith called The Spirit of Christmas. This past year, all year long, I’ve worked on an album called Stoned Cold Country. That’s a 60th anniversary celebration and tribute to the Rolling Stones.
It’s not necessarily about the medium, but it’s always about how can you reinvent yourself from a creative standpoint? What is it that you haven’t done before? I feel like you always have to put yourself, as a creative person, into uncomfortable situations. You really have to put yourself into a place where you’re like, “What have I gotten myself into? I’m not sure I know how to do this.” Then you go through all those feelings of self doubt. You want those feelings as a creative person because it pushes you to make great work.
Do you have any stories you’d like to share about a time you’ve felt a lot of self-doubt but prevailed?
The one that is at always at the forefront of my mind is the most important creative endeavor that I’ve ever been a part of: the 50th anniversary open of the CMA Awards. I told you how I grew up. This genre is important to me. The 50th anniversary open was the most important thing that I’ve ever done, and I also felt like it was important to the industry and to us as country music. I had to get that right.
It was the most nerve-wracking disaster in rehearsal that you’ve ever seen in your life. A lot of these people hadn’t been on TV in 20 years. We are surrounded by greatness with Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, Roy Clark, Charley Pride, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam and Charlie Daniels. It had to work like clockwork in order for it to work and it was the worst rehearsal of all time. I remember walking on stage with my head down and thinking, “Buddy, you have bitten off more than you can chew this time.” I hear a voice that goes, “Looked better on paper, didn’t it?” I looked up and it’s Vince Gill. He is laughing and he goes, “It’s going to be alright.” [Laughs]
We never finished it from beginning to end during rehearsal. The only time that we ever saw that performance from beginning to end without stopping was live on the air. I was praying, “Please, Lord, let us get through this.” We got through it and I literally busted out crying. I was so proud.
If someone were to ask you how to get a job like yours, what would you tell them?
Well, I want to keep it for a while. [Laughs]
I think that you have to do your one hundred thousand hours. This position here is not 10,000 hours. This is hundreds of thousands of hours. I do feel like I’m unique because of the experiences that I’ve been able to go through. I experienced Buck Owens, Jerry Lee Lewis and the stars of the Grand Ole Opry at a young age. I was 12 years old backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. I would be in the dressing room asking Jack Greene, “How did you record ‘Statue Of A Fool’ with only four tracks? How did you do that back then?” I can hear an Everly Brothers record and tell you who played on that record. I know the history. I know where we came from. I knew, adored and loved Jo Walker-Meador here at the CMA. There’s practically not a country song that I don’t know the lyrics to if it was a hit from the ’40s on. I think in order to do this job well, you’ve gotta know all that. It’s better to know the history for you to make decisions in the present.
It means everything to me. Doing this job at this time means everything in the world to me. Other than my family, it’s the most important thing that I do.