The CMT Awards rolled out their perennial purple carpet before Wednesday night's show, and we were there to meet the stars in all their violet-treading glory. Here's what some of Nashville's finest had to tell us:
The wagon-master was joined by Lady Antebellum for his performance of the chart-topping "Wagon Wheel," as he was in the studio. They'd only done it once live before, at a festival where they were both booked late last month. "We played a festival together in Baton Rouge and Charles (Kelley) said, 'Hey man, you think we should practice this once?' So we decided we might want to sing it together once before we came here," Rucker told Yahoo! before the show. "I’m excited because I never get to do it with 'em. When I listen to the record, I think they sound so perfect. It sounds like Lou Rawls singing with the Jordainares! They sound like triplets when they sing."
"Wagon Wheel" is a fascinating story unto itself, having begun life as an unfinished Bob Dylan bootleg decades before before Old Crow Medicine Show rewrote it, which was years before Rucker cut it. "I’m proud to be a part of that story. Old Crow Medicine Show, I’m such a huge fan, and their version is so bluegrass. It’s the perfect bluegrass songs. You don’t need drums or nothing on that. That’s probably why I never thought about cutting it until I heard some little band do it country. I thought, that would make a great country song, too. Even in the studio, that was one thing we said to ourselves: Let’s forget the Old Crow recording. We could never top that. Let’s just make it a big country song.
The night before the CMTs, Urban had showed up at the Grand Ole Opry to support Kree Harrison, the American Idol Season 12 runner-up who was making her Opry debut. "It was great to hear her singing there" at the Opry House, said her former judge. "That voice—that place was built for it. "I love the purity in her voice — It’s pure country, it really is — and if you love country music, you can’t not love Kree."
Urban recently announced plans for the September release of his album Fuse, which finds him working not only with Nashville standbys like Nathan Chapman but also rock producers like Butch Walker and Mike Elizondo. That mix is "a bit eclectic," but don't expect radical left turns or a disjointed jumble. "I think when we play live, it’s a pretty eclectic mix of styles, too. So I think in a lot of ways, because I co-produce, there’s a good, strong through-line through everything. I think there’s commonality between all the songs. No matter who I’m working with, it sounds like me in every situation. I don’t think it sounds like I’m singing to a karaoke track." Standing beside him, Nicole Kidman chuckled at the idea of him sounding karaoke-esque. "I have had that happen with producers," he assured her, and us. "But having now made a lot of records, I know what I want things to sound like."
"Your guess is correct," the Idol runner-up told us. "This is my first awards show." And probably not her last, given how she went over at her aforementioned Opry debut the previous night. She sang a bit of her new single, "All Cried Out," on the CMTs, backed by the Mavericks. She'll have a chance to impress Nashville again this Saturday when she sings the national anthem at the CMA Festival's annual celebrity softball game.
How has Harrison felt, hearing about the comings and goings — mostly goings, so far — of judges and producers on Idol since the season ended? "Honestly, I don’t read things like that. If I read the news, it’s not about that," she assured us. Seriously? Harrison says she wasn't keeping track of Idol news when she was still on the show, either. "I feel like I’ve been in a bubble for a year with the Idol thing. When there was so-called drama with Mariah and Nicki, we had no idea. I’m just excited I get to continue my little Idol journey on tour with the Idol family — all of the contestants who made the top 10, and we added Aubrey (Cleland). You’re absolutely right, you become a little dysfunctional family. Even the camera crew down to the lighting designer — you’re with them every waking moment of every day. I do miss them."
Harrison sounded like she'd gotten some media training to not divulge details about her upcoming album too soon. "It’s all in the works. It’s intense because it’s so precious to me. As an artist I want it to be exactly what I feel like I am. As soon as I have my release date, I will shout it from the rooftops and you will know!"
Not surprisingly, since she's further underway, the Voice Season 3 winner was more forthcoming about her album-in-progress, which is due in October. "I’m about eight songs in," she told us. "I’ve got a few more to do next week. I’m in with (producer) Dann Huff, and it’s coming together really nicely." Pope had just made a reappearance on The Voice the previous night to perform the album's first single, "Wasting All These Tears."
For those of us who liked Pope's pre-Voice rock band, Hey Monday, she assured us we needn't worry about too drastic a change of pace now that she's gone Nashville. "I think it’s oddly similar," she said. "I’m doing a rock approach to the traditional country sound, and I think that’s where country is headed anyway. I mean, Jason Aldean is doing the rock country, and Blake even has some pop elements in his stuff, too, so it’s happening all around, and I’m just going along for the ride. I love country music, I grew up singing it, and now I’m able to merge the pop-rock elements as well... I don’t have a fake accent that I put on, and I’m not gonna walk around in a cowboy hat and boots. Although that’s cool, but that’s just not me."
In the midst of our conversation, a camera crew came up and started eavesdropping. "I’m shooting a docu-series for CMT, so that’s happening in the midst of all this," Pope explained. "That’ll be out in September. They’re lurking around in the shadows."
At the CMA Festival, they're designated hosts, and will "be there every night with the fans introducing all these great country artists" in addition to playing their own set, Jimi Westbrook pointed out.
On the CMT Awards, they pulled out their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," joined by surprise guest Keith Urban, popping out from beneath the stage and assuming the role of Lindsey Buckingham for a climactic guitar solo. It replaced their preferred choice, which would have been a little more controversial, due to its untimely title metaphor. "We did Crossroads on CMT a few years back and 'The Chain' is a song we put in our set after that here and there. So CMT was like, why don’t you pull that one out? We were planning on doing 'Tornado' tonight, but in light of everything that's happened, we thought it might be better if we didn’t do that."
Why not do the hot single (and hot video) "Your Side of the Bed"? For one thing, they already made a memorable set piece of that song at the recent ACM Awards. But there was a more important reason not to go there. "That song worked for the ACMs," Karen Fairchild told us, "but the CMT Awards are all about rocking songs and having fun and tempo. The fans can dance and party and they always have a great pit of fans down front. So we wanted to do something that was up and not a ballad right now."
They have a crossover smash with "Cruise," which, thanks to Nelly's participation, is a major pop as well as country hit. Nelly joined them for the climax of the CMTs. "I’m personally excited about our performance with Nelly," Brian Kelley told us before the show. "It’s a dream come true, so hopefully those 3 minutes and 30 seconds will go by more like 10."
Nelly at the CMTs [Getty Images]Was it also Nelly's dream come true to perform on the CMT Awards? "Maybe so, man!" laughed Kelley. "I don’t see why not. Nelly’s so cool. He loves being a part of country music when he can, so I think he’s proud to be here as well." Added Tyler Hubbard, "He’s become a good friend of ours and he’s a good guy to be around. He’s got a lot of good advice for us."
Soon Florida Georgia Line will be doling out the advice on how to be superstars, judging from their abrupt trajectory. The night before, they'd played a benefit at the Ryman for a Tennessee food bank. The duo had also done the same benefit in 2012, hunger having been one of their chosen causes even back when they were actually hungry. "We played it last year and I don’t think anybody knew who we were," said Hubbard. This year, they were the big draw. "It’s cool to come back a year later and people recognize us and know our music," he said, in what counts as a country understatement.
After recently performing a quiet version of her breakthrough hit "Merry Go Round" on the Billboard Awards, Musgraves was at the CMTs to do her more rambunctious second single, "Blowin' Smoke." But she thinks there's a through-line between the two songs.
"I thought 'Blowin' Smoke' was a good choice for a second single because it’s kind of the same character as the person in 'Merry Go Round,' kind of feeling like they’re maybe stuck or trapped in their mundane routine, but it’s a little more fun and upbeat," Musgraves explained. "It kind of has that 'Nine to Five' feel to it. The video I could see was gonna be really fun to make; I had a vision for that. And it was something kind of fun for summer."
She's spending her summer opening for Kenny Chesney in the hugest possible venues, but that doesn't mean she's adopted a Chesney-like performance style. "I kind of like to just sing the songs, represent the songs, because I think that’s the most important part," Musgraves told us. "But it is a challenge to have to reach the person in the nosebleed section. It’s been a good learning curve to learn more about that — kind of being a little bit bigger, but not being cheesy about it."
This recently reunited group was enlisted as the house band for the CMTs, backing some of the up-and-coming performers who didn't get full performances but sang their hits coming in and out of commercials. Then they were set to cross the street to the Ryman Auditorium to play a set of their own material at Marty Stuart's annual late-night show. "We’ll be playing all night," said Paul Deakin. "Hopefully we won’t screw up other people’s songs, just our own."
Being a house band for an awards show is "interesting," added Deakin, "because you’re learning other material that you don’t play normally, in a different style than what we play, but you’re only learning little snippets because they’re bumpers in, bumpers out. We’re learning like a chorus and a verse of each song. It’s all about when you start and when you stop. It’s not necessarily all that musical, but it’s a good time."
Robert Reynolds was especially excited about playing the Marty Stuart jam, which goes into the early a.m. hours at the Ryman. "It’s kind of like the rambles that Levon Helm has done over the years," he said. "There's sort of a sense of celebrating the Ryman. Marty knows historically there used to be a lot of late night performances, like the Midnight Jamboree. I think in the end it’s sort of making sure there’s this thing that’s kept alive, this late night tradition. When all the other stuff is done, there’s still people that want to play music. I think that’s the spirit of it."