Among the things that have fallen victim to the recent tragedy in Las Vegas, add any overt feeling of self-congratulation at next week’s CMT Artists of the Year telecast in Nashville. Network brass have decided to turn the Wednesday special into a “night of hope and healing” instead of an evening of honorifics, with no trophies handed out and no acceptance speeches given.
“Given the confluence of events that have gone on — the natural disasters, the horrific shooting in Vegas — it was sort of obvious to us that we had to transform our annual special.” CMT general manager Frank Tanki tells Variety of the suddenly awards-less awards show. “We met immediately as a team after the Vegas event and started to brainstorm what would be best. Every day we talked about: How do we find the right tone for the show? How do we be respectful? But how do we also sort of deliver what our fans come to us for?”
Tanki said he watched the first home game of Las Vegas’ NHL expansion team, the Golden Knights, Tuesday night, “and I was so inspired by the way that they were respectful and yet passionate in their ways. And I think in many ways that’s what we’re doing. We want to celebrate resilience and the human spirit, and we’re lucky that we can do that with music, which is historically something that unites us. So we’ve elected to forego the formal presentation of awards and speeches, and we’re going to use that time to focus more on giving the artists an opportunity to acknowledge and be respectful of their fans.”
The opening segment will feature a quartet of artists from both in and out of country music, singing a pair of inspirational songs. R&B singer Andra Day will be joined by Nashville’s Little Big Town for her hit “Rise Up,” a song they first sang together during LBT’s residency at the Ryman Auditorium in February. Then those two acts will be joined by Lee Ann Womack and Common for “Stand Up for Something,” the song that Day and Common perform on the soundtrack of “Marshall” (written for the civil rights-themed movie by Common and Diane Warren).
The five Artists of the Year winner are advertised in advance of the show each year, with no suspense or nominees, so that makes it easier to remove the kudocast element of the show than it would be if this were the CMT Awards in June, which is a more traditional awards show for the web. But Tanki says that “regardless” of the awards’ format, “we would have looked to create a very, very different type of show.”
One of the five honorees, Jason Aldean, was on stage in Las Vegas when the shooter struck, and already implicitly addressed the massacre in song by singing the late Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” as a cold opening for “Saturday Night Live” last weekend. But will Aldean and the other four featured honorees — Chris Stapleton, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, and Keith Urban, plus previously announced guest Sam Hunt — be asked to tamp down any of their songs that lean more toward the party side and solemnize the entire show?
Song choices are still being worked out, says Tanki, but CMT is looking to encourage high-spiritedness, he emphasizes. “We have a tremendous production, music and talent team that has relationships with these artists, and every day they’re talking to them and their reps about: What do they want to perform? How are they doing? How do they want to approach this? You know, the stage really belongs to them, and it’s a dialogue that we’re having with each of them, but they’ll make their own individual decisions at the end of the day.”
Additional moments involving other artists and celebrities speaking to (or singing to) the troubled national mood are yet to be announced.
CMT reps point out that trophies won’t actually be banned at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center, from which the show will air live Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET/PT. They’ll just remain at the artists’ tables, lest the bling distract too much from the invocation of hurricanes, fires, and shootings that have changed the tenor of the telecast.