CMA Awards Burning Questions: How ‘Country’s Biggest Night’ Became the First Big Pandemic-Era Awards Show to Test Positive for a Live Audience

For the last nine months, television awards shows have been busy trying to inventing wheels when it comes to novel ways of presenting a telecast without reaction shots. That’s why Wednesday night’s CMA Awards felt like the novelty of the year so far in the awards space, just by virtue of having something resembling a traditional live audience. It wasn’t the usual arena crowd: The 15,000 or so people who would usually be packed into Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for the show were replaced by fewer than 100 people, all of them performers or presenters on the show and their guests. But it did feel, on the surface, like a return to kudo-cast normalcy — even if the offstage drama that transpired, with five performers dropping out after they or someone in their circle tested positive for COVID-19, was anything but normal.

Variety got the show’s longtime executive producer, Robert Deaton, and the Country Music Association’s CEO, Sarah Trahern, on the phone the evening after the ABC telecast to answer burning questions about how the show came together, seemingly by the seat of its pants, in some ways, despite a plan that started falling into place right as lockdowns started happening back in March.

VARIETY: First of all, were there any spontaneous highlights that stand out for you?

DEATON: One of my favorite things that happened in last night’s show was the reaction of all the women when Maren (Morris) won (female vocalist of the year). It was unlike any other show that you’ve seen, in that they’re all so supportive of each other, and it just comes across as not fake at all, because it’s real. And when you saw the joy of Miranda (Lambert) and Ashley (McBryde) and Carrie (Underwood), about how truly excited they were for Maren, to me, that was just what music’s all about and what Nashville is all about. It happened again when Eric (Church) won entertainer of the year. The happiest guy in the room was Luke Combs. The other thing that I felt like that about that was unscripted was how the acceptance speeches of Maren Morris, Luke Combs and Eric Church were just so fit for for the time that we’re living in.

TRAHERN: I loved seeing Jimmie Allen up there on stage with Charley Pride. I just thought that was heartfelt, and Darius (Rucker) in a lot of our interviews talked about how he’s followed in Charlie’s footsteps, and then you’ve got Jimmie also talking about following in Darius’ footsteps (as the rare Black artist in country music). And then I don’t know if you caught it, but I thought Ingrid Andress’ performance was so real and one of my favorite moments of the night.

People have asked why Andress was crying at the end of her number.

DEATON: I didn’t ask her why. I just said, “I’m sure you have a reason why you cried. You better be ready, because people are going to ask you.” [Laughs.] I didn’t want to pry as to why.

This is the third big country awards show in close succession, after both the ACM Awards and CMT Awards got delayed for months and ended up airing within two months of your show. So how early did you come up with the basic concepts for the CMAs, and how much were you looking at what other shows were doing and feeling like you needed to differentiate yourself by doing the opposite?

DEATON: No, we didn’t take the other shows into account at all. I’m going to tell you the truth. I actually started designing this idea back in March. I got on the phone with Sarah, and she got Joe Galante and Clarence Spalding, who are co-chairs of television committee. And I said to them, I said, “I think we might be in for a long haul on this.” Back in March, I think a lot of people thought with COVID that it’s gonna go for a couple months and then it’s going to be over. And I just thought, maybe it will be, but maybe we should start coming up with another idea of how to do it. And once I came up with this approach, we have stuck with this since March.

The idea was twofold. We knew we could not do a Zoom show; we could not do a living room show. We could not do that and have it represents the CMAs, which is “country music’s biggest night.” It had to be representative of the brand. The other thing, the idea had to be adaptable. All along we knew we were going to try looking at having a small audience. But we didn’t know: Do we put super fans in there. Do we test our board and put them in there? I called Sarah one day and said, “If we look at our main categories, it’s about 50 nominees or so. We could do our nominees, plus one.” So that became the plan.

But honestly, we really didn’t know (until recently) with the hurdles we had to jump through. We had to make sure that we had the approval of the health department, the city of Nashville, the guilds, AFTRA, SAG. There are all these protocols that we had to adhere to, and gladly so, But talking about adaptability. We knew the set we were going to build, but only in the last three weeks did we know for sure that we were gonna be able to have an audience. If we weren’t able to have an audience, we were going to do it anyway, with this set, with our artists, so that it felt big and on-brand.

TRAHERN: He really was working on the idea all the way back to March and April, with the idea of there being two separate stages so you could go back and forth to performances and the host position in the middle. Robert had four or five different set designs based on that same concept, because we were looking at 10 stages originally. We went through three different potential venue changes until we were able to find out that the Music City Center was open, and had state-of-the-art facilities where we could do our limited virtual red carpet, where the artists talk to reporters at home and not in the room, and virtual radio remotes and all of the things that we usually do around a show in a controlled and safe environment.

What were some of the more unusual protocols?

TRAHERN: Darius had the same mic all night. Reba had the same mic all night. You’ll notice that the presenters had their own microphones, so that the microphone that was on the set was only utilized for the acceptance speeches, and after each acceptance speech and commercial break, they were all wiped down and sanitized before another another award was given. So the protocols went into extreme, extreme detail around every part of the production.

DEATON: We had to have 15 minutes, minimum, in-between each stage performance, to not just strike the previous musicians’ amps and instruments but to clean before the next act.

Is that 15-minute turnaround time why you had to do some pre-records, on those same sets?

DEATON: That’s correct. But you know what? I’m thinking about the television audience that’s tuning in. That’s who I care about. You’re not sitting at home thinking, “Oh, this was pre-taped.” We wanted it to feel as live as we possibly could so that you didn’t know the difference, whether that person was pre-taped or this person was live. We wanted the home audience tp just enjoy the program and get a bit of normalcy of what they’re used to from the CMA Awards.

Things were anything but normal behind the scenes, when you had five artists drop out because either they contracted COVID (in the case of Lee Brice, Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and musician of the year winner Jenee Fleenor) or someone in their family or entourage had (Lady A and Rascal Flatts). Were you panicking at all about filling those slots?

DEATON: No. First of all, there’s no panic involved — I’m not one that’s going to do that. Each hurdle ios just a challenge and we’re gonna get to the answer. It did mean we had a couple more slots to fill. But when Lee Brice went out, I conferred with Sarah and our network and said, basically, we need to overbook this show, in case we lose a couple of other artists. And that’s what we did. So there weren’t really any replacements, where you’d go “Oh, this one is replacing this artist.” There wasn’t any of that, because we went into the show long, and we did that with our network’s approval, knowing that, hey, this could happen again.

This is not something where you come up with a plan A and a backup and you’re done. You have to have plan A, B, C and D. Plan B was, if we’d lost two or three live performances on the night of the show, I had come up with a concept called “CMA Flashback.” Because I thought this might be a year where our audience might like to see two or three performances from the past again; for example, Dolly and Kenny doing “Islands in the Stream” at the 17th annual in 1983. I thought, “Well, that’s something that people would love to see again.” I earmarked two to three performances like that so that if someone didn’t clear their test on the day of the show, I had a mechanism to be able to complete a three-hour show. Fortunately for us, everybody cleared that day, but we were prepared.

So how early did it become clear Rascal Flatts couldn’t do it? Because they didn’t announce it until just after the show started.

TRAHERN: We were not far out. We received news on Tuesday that a member of their team had had it in their family and that somebody had tested positive. But they never been on the footprint. But I think we decided with them that we didn’t want to create a sense of panic that all these artists are falling out. So we had conversations with them about waiting and making the announcement on Wednesday, which I think was a good one.

Had they been in rehearsals?

They had never been on the set. We did not allow anyone into the footprint and would not actually give a credential to someone until we had their test results back. The people who came out (as testing positive), like Lee Brice, didn’t come on set either.

One thing people that a lot of people brought up who were watching the show was that virtually no one in the audience was wearing a mask. Do you understand why that concerned some viewers?

TRAHERN: I could see how fans would feel that. What you didn’t see off camera was that anybody who’s walking around the room had to wear a mask. Any of us who were within what we called Zone A, which was an area where an artist might be or someone might be singing without a mask, had to wear not only regular PPE and a mask, but also a face shield at all times. But when the people were sitting at their tables, the analogy all of us used is it’s kind of like a restaurant, because all the tables were eight feet apart. And when people were in their seats, they were allowed to take off their masks and drink their water or their wine at the table. But if they got out of their seats to walk around, they had to put them on. Or in the case of the artists, who might not be wearing a mask because of their hair and makeup, they had shields that they held up in front of their faces when they were transported between the backstage and the stage itself. Sure, we got some comments from people about the audience area itself. But I think just like you go to a restaurant and don’t see people wearing masks at their seats, this was the same thing.

DEATON: Because I was in Zone A and talking directly to the talent, even though I was being tested every other day, I had a mask on and a face shield at all times. … There was a lot of protocol in place. It cost a lot of money to do that, as well, to make sure that that is done right. But that’s okay, because we wanted to make sure. I mean, I would tell you, probably one of the safest places in the world to be was at our show.

TRAHERN: Every single person who walked on the set — crew, staff, artists, managers, anybody — did not get their credential unless they’d been tested. And some of them tested repeatedly between October 24, when we first started our set load-in, until today, when I was over there and they were still loading things out. We administered roughly 3000 tests, as well as just regular onsite protocols, like daily temperature checks and filling out healthcare questionnaires, and being assigned one of our masks every day as well.

You made lemonade out of lemons, maybe, by going for an intimate supper club look with the audience. How many tables and audience members did you have?

TRAHERN: I think our maximum capacity was 98, but we didn’t have that because some tables, we just put two people. They could have all had four, but we didn’t get that.

DEATON: As a producer, what drove me crazy was that was a corner booth that was empty for the first two acts. And every time we shot it, I was like, “Ugh —who is supposed to be at that table?” It was Brothers Osborne, and they just had gotten done with the opening, but they hadn’t gotten to their seats yet. Most years we would go put seat fillers there, but we couldn’t do that, because it was only for the brothers. We told the artist prior to the show, “You are the audience for your peers. You have to sit for the entire three hours, because we can’t replace you. If you decide, ‘I’m gonna go to the bus for 30 minutes and then come back,’ that’s going to sit empty. So you’ve got to support each other.” And they did. Miranda Lambert came out there for three hours, and so did everybody, unless they were performing or had won an award.

TRAHERN: This was our 54th year, and we’ve had so many asterisks this year. We had to postpone Music Fest and all of these things that won’t happen because of COVID. But to be able to still pull off a classy-looking show that in the archives of CMA 50 years from now, someone will pull a clip from the show… Yeah, it’ll look different than our other shows, but it won’t look that different. It wasn’t the same backyard concert we’ve been seeing. You know, every time I see a Zoom (performance), I want to applaud at the end of somebody playing, but it just feels so weird. With this, people actually got to sit there and listen to it. And so many of the calls today have been: Wow. You actually showed us that at some point there will be a path forward. There might be a lot of hoops to jump through to be able to do a show, but we can see a time, whether that’s six months from now if there’s vaccines, or nine months from now, where we’re going to get to go back and do our bit again. So many artists said to Robert and me, “Wow, I feel like for one night I got to be back out doing something normal, and see my friends, even if it’s across the room.” Which made it pretty special.

You had separate tributes to four dearly departed country stars, between Charlie Daniels, Joe Diffie, Mac Davis and Kenny Rogers, which is a lot for one show. But a lot of people on social media were pointing to some of the other people who died in the last year who didn’t get a mention — like Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver and John Prine — and wondering why there wasn’t at least an In Memoriam to include them. Was it because you thought it would have been too much on top of all the other memorial segments? [Note: After this interview was conducted, Jason Isbell made news by saying he and Amanda Shires were returning their lifetime CMA membership cards because of the lack of mention of Prine.]

DEATON: I’ll tell you. First of all, we don’t historically have In Memoriams on the CMA Awards. We’ve only had one, one time. And  that was the year after the tragedy in Las Vegas (the Route 91 Harvest Festival killings), and we felt like we should do an In Memoriam that year so that we could include those fans that lost their lives at a country music show where they should have been having a good time. And so that was the only year out of the 54 years that we’ve done an In Memoriam. So it’s never been really historically in our DNA to do that.

But having the four tributes, that was intentional. I decided early on, because of who the artists were, instead of not doing anything, or making a mention or rolling a 30-second clip, we need to embrace this and really double down on this. Charlie is so beloved in our community as an artist, and then you have Kenny Rogers, who was our host four times, I think, and Mac Davis was also a CMA host. It’s not like about, well, is this going to be too much, or how’s this going to affect the flow of the show? You normally don’t do four in a year, but it was the right thing to do, and sometimes that’s the answer.

There were six tribute spots in total, between the four for the deceased and then the tribute to “Urban Cowboy” and the special award to Charley Pride. The Pride segment felt like it came from another, more relaxed era of television, with him admitting he was nervous and sweetly rambling, and the small audience of stars all standing in rapt attention for the duration.

DEATON: It really did feel different. If you think about where we’ve come from, from a technological point of view, the era of when he was on the CMA Awards looks vastly different than what it does now. But the artists in the audience stood up and revered him and they were going to just wait until he was finished. And for me, there was no rush there. And Jimmie (Allen) had a lot to do with with keeping the tone of how that played out. It was really a beautiful moment, one that we will be looking at for a long time to come.

TRAHERN: Charley was on our show back in 2016 as part of the opening for the 50th anniversary. So we did a little bit of “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” then, too, so he’s been a part of our recent CMA history as well as our history back in the ‘70s. … (Kris) Kristofferson got the award last year and was not able to come. When they called Charley to say, you’re the recipient of the award this year, we would have understood in the era of COVID if he was not able to come. But the fact that they made the trip in from Texas really meant the world to us.

Darius and Reba certainly brought a different tone than Brad and Carrie did all those years. They used to do more topical jokes, which people either loved or hated, and kind of rib the artists too. Reba ribbed Morgan Wallen a little bit about his social distancing problems, but they are not the types to go for edgy comedy. Do you feel like they represent a different direction for that part of the show now?

DEATON: Here’s the thing. Even if we had Brad and Carrie this year, we couldn’t do Brad and Carrie. It’s a different time right now. And yes, we had a few jokes in there, but we were trying to be respectful to people and the year that they’ve had. We did want to entertain, but there was a lot of stuff that we would have done three or four years ago that just wasn’t appropriate this year now. And so I think even if we had Brad and Carrie, we would have had a different tone this year in the opening monologue.

TRAHERN: I totally concur with you there. But I also think there’s a magic to Brad and Carrie and their humor that will never be matched. Last year we had three women, which was a whole different, very special vibe for the program with Dolly and Carrie and Reba, and that had a different tone than certainly this year did.

We’re just going to be beginning discussions in the next couple of weeks, probably, looking toward what we might be doing next year for hosts, and hoping that we’re back at Bridgestone and carrying the legacy of the show forward for the 55th annual show. And I have no idea what that host configuration is going to look like. Robert has some ideas, I’m sure. We just haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk about it yet. But I think Reba and Darius were so appropriate for this year. I can’t tell you how many people texted me: “I just love to watch Darius laugh.” It just put a smile on everyone’s face, when Reba made him laugh. But I do think that our goal of the tone that Robert set for the whole show, whether it’s the In memoriam pieces or the anniversary tributes, was: Let’s have some respect. Let’s have some fun together and celebrate the year we have had as a community. But it’s not a year to be more sarcastic and edgy, like we’ve done in the past. It’s just not the time for that.

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