CMAs Producer Robert Deaton Renews Contract, Reveals Key Performers (EXCLUSIVE)

Robert Deaton might have earned the right to be a little jaded, now that he’s in his 11th year as executive producer of the CMA Awards. But “signing a new five-year contract, to me, is a dream come true,” he tells Variety, revealing exclusively that he just re-upped with the Country Music Association to stay on the job through 2021, which also happens to be how long the CMAs are currently committed to ABC. “It’s the job that I want to be doing,” he says.

Well, one of them. It’s only been a few weeks since Deaton announced he was leaving CAA to sign with UTA, and he says now that a big part of that decision had to do with a desire to move more into scripted endeavors. But for the next few weeks, the only scripts he’s looking at are the ones for the CMAs as well as “CMA Country Christmas,” a show that tapes less than a week after the live awards telecast. (His contract renewal also covers a CMA Music Festival special that airs every August.)

Deaton doesn’t just have his own signing to toot: He’s also revealing for the first time that pop star Pink, who has the No. 2 album on iTunes at the moment, will appear on this show, along the previously announced Niall Horan. These genre interlopers aren’t arbitrary picks: Pink is actually up for a CMA for a duet with Kenny Chesney, and Horan has a duet with Maren Morris on his new album, which they’ll perform together on the Nov. 8 show.

Also being unveiled by Deaton here: an all-star show opener that will include Eric Church, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, and Darius Rucker (with more likely to come), a solo spot by Urban, and a duet by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.

Deaton sat down with Variety in Nashville to talk about his career moves — or career stays — and how the tone of this year’s CMAs will and won’t differ from last year’s 50th anniversary blowout.

Why make the agency shift now?

Robert Deaton: I love doing the CMA Awards and working with the people here [in Nashville]. But I also want to be able to creatively do other things. For example, I produced Tim and Faith’s Soul 2 Soul residency in Las Vegas. I did Michael W. Smith’s Christmas record a couple years ago. Two years ago I did “The Passion” for Fox. And then I shot a movie called “Rounding Third” with Fred Roos, the producer of the “Godfather” movies. I felt like UTA was a good place to be able to do more scripted [projects]. Theater projects, too.

And you’re announcing a new contract with the CMAs. How many years does it cover?

It’s for five years. I’m absolutely thrilled. It’s just an honor to be able to collaborate with these artists. It’s my favorite thing in the world. I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t play golf. This is it. I feel like I was grooming for this job my whole life and just didn’t know it. As I grew up, my father had a country music television show on Friday nights. I was 6 years old, hanging out with Buck Owens. Then I studied music in college and played in orchestras and then got into photography. I shot 500 music videos in my career. It was a great training ground, because I feel like I’m able to talk to musicians and speak their language, and also understand how to present a song on TV and make it impactful. This will be my 11th year executive producing (the CMAs). And I got to learn from the best — working under the great Walter Miller. If there were a Mount Rushmore for television producers, Walter would be on that mountainside.

The CMT Artists of the Year show decided to forego passing out trophies on screen, so as not to seem indifferent to recent tragedies. With the tone of CMAs change too?

This year, obviously, the tone will be different, with what’s going on in the world. If the 50th was this year, we’d have a hard time. Country music is in a different place right now. It does affect the tone, everything that’s happened, including the devastation in Houston with the hurricanes. We just came out of something that was horrific [in Las Vegas]. And then we also lost Don Williams, Troy Gentry, and Glen Campbell this year. The question is, how do you have a celebration but also take the moments that you have to take to remember? But CMT was in a different place than I am. We’re definitely giving awards.

You have a show opener planned with Eric Church, Keith Urban, Darius Rucker, and Lady Antebellum, among others. Will it be as grand as last year? And what’s the nature of that number?

I can’t tell you the theme, because it is a surprise. I loved the opening last year (which included Randy Travis, Reba McIntire, Vince Gill, Roy Clark, Charley Pride, Charlie Daniels, and show hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood). It’s one of the favorite things I’ve ever done in my life. Rehearsal was awful; it was terrible. But it worked so well on TV. This year, I was asking myself: What’s the next incarnation of that?

The show usually has some inter-genre collaborations. You aren’t saying whether Pink will be collaborating with anyone, but Maren Morris will sing with Niall Horan.

The thing that I try to look at first is, does it make sense musically, and is it organic and real? Maren and Niall are natural; they have a song coming out together off his album called “Seeing Blind.” We’re doing a mash-up with that and (Morris’) “I Could Use a Love Song.”… The new album from Pink is incredible. I like to be able to have open arms…. We had Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks. Nobody would have said Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake was a fit before the performance. After, yes, but not before the performance. It’s a nice part of the narrative of the night.

You’ve announced some hot freshman acts like Old Dominion and Jon Pardi for the show. How much time can you give them? To hardcore country radio listeners, they’re already huge stars. To the average network viewer, not so much.

Some years we do better than others, but there’s always an effort to put new artists on the show. Honestly, it’s harder to do on the CMA Awards, because it’s November and a very competitive time during sweeps. You’re trying to serve a lot of things: the industry; paying respect to the nominations from the CMA members. And then it is about television, and ratings. We have to be much, much broader [-based than country radio]. But we are investing in our future this year. There’s a fine line: You can go with a new artist too early. You want to be in this sweet spot. With Old Dominion, I’ll bet people will go, “Oh, I didn’t know that was them. Now I know what they look like.” Because they’ve had huge songs, and now there will be the face recognition you get. We’ve got to move that story forward for them.

You once taped the CMA Country Christmas show a couple days after the CMAs, presumably because you were already set up in the Bridgestone Arena, and the artists hadn’t left town yet. Now you’re bumping the shoot to six days later. Why?

Well, the first year we did it the night after [on a Thursday], and I still don’t know how I did that. Then we did it on Friday. But we have scheduling conflicts with the Predators; they need to get back in the building. So we moved to the Opry House, [and thought], why are we trying to do this so quick? Let’s give ourselves a couple of days’ breathing room.

There is an old-school variety-show aspect to CMA Country Christmas that you don’t see on network TV any more. You’re not afraid to have some pretty wholesome, if not borderline-corny, choreography. It feels very ‘60s/‘70s in some ways.

I loved the Bing Crosby and Andy Williams Christmas specials, and I wanted to do a modern-day version of that. Anybody can sit down and watch the show, from age 2 to… what does the song say, 92? The original acorn for “CMA Country Christmas” was a clip from a Judy Garland Christmas special where Mel Torme was at the piano and she’s standing beside it, and they’re just talking. “I heard you wrote a new Christmas song,” she said, and Mel was like, “I did, I wrote this last week” — the first time they’d performed “The Christmas Song.” I felt like that’s what this show should be. It’s like we’re visiting with each other, and “What’s your favorite Christmas gift you ever got?” I love that pacing. The rest of the year, you’re programming everything fast fast fast. We slow down a minute. But that’s the only time of year you can do that, because that’s not gonna work in July.

This is the first year the Christmas show is being hosted by Reba. You don’t have to worry about whether she can host a show.

No, Reba is the last thing I need to worry about. Reba’s probably worried about me.

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