COVID-19 hit the music industry hard. As venues closed and shows were cancelled, much of the population masked up and hunkered down at home, and a vital stream of income for artists — touring — withered and dried up.
Country acts, long considered road warriors, were especially affected. Nashville became the hub of the country music business, after all, by geographic proximity to more than half of America’s population. It was a reasonable drive for performers based in Music City to reach audiences throughout the South, across the Midwest and into the Northeast, then head home to Nashville, and head out again.
Hitting the highway became a lifestyle for the musicians who came to call Nashville home. And “the road” became part of country music’s DNA, a double helix of highways and miles.
So, it felt like a homecoming celebration, indeed, at the CMA Touring Awards, held Monday night in Nashville. The ninth annual event, presented by the venerable Country Music Association, honors behind-the-scenes workers who make the wheels on the bus go round and round — drivers, tour managers, publicists, lighting directors, band musicians, sound engineers and mixers, talent agents and others essential to keeping the show on the road.
The awards returned after two years of hiatus, due to COVID setbacks, a triumphant acknowledgement that the country music industry itself was now fully back in business.
Guitar-slinging country superstar Keith Urban knows about touring. He’s been doing it since he was a teenager, driving a van, operating lights — and sometimes sitting in on guitar — for rock acts as they connected the dots for gigs across Australia and New Zealand. It would be a few years before Urban would find his solo spotlight as an arena-filling, platinum-selling country megastar, notching nearly 40 chart singles and being honored multiple times as the year’s top entertainer by the Academy of Country Music and the CMA.
“I feel really, really lucky that I got to start in the beginning like that, schlepping gear and setting everything up, then tearing it down, and finally being able to buy a truck and a little PA system,” Urban tells Variety. “You do that for years and years and years… It builds a deep appreciation for when you finally do get a crew. You know how hard that job is because you’ve done it.”
Dressed in skinny jeans, a low-neck tee and a fashionably short-waisted jacket, Urban visits on a dressing room couch backstage at Nashville’s Marathon Music Works, having just finished hosting the Touring Awards. The two-hour event attended by nearly some 400 of Nashville music-biz insiders is nominated and voted by the CMA’s membership in categories for publicity, management, media, marketing, record label, promotion, venues and touring.
Most people are aware of the Country Music Association’s higher-profile awards event, the annual televised primetime CMA Awards, a star-packed network TV event every fall. But the robust trade organization (created in 1958 to promote country music) does “smaller” ceremonies and events throughout the year, too, honoring music educators, songwriters — and touring professionals. Somewhat like the various specialized “guild” awards (non-televised events recognizing documentaries, costuming, animation, makeup and hair, sound cinematography and other cinematic subsets leading up to Hollywood’s biggest movie night, the Oscars), the Touring Awards recognize a group of people who wouldn’t be recognized by at the CMA Awards. But in the realm of touring, they’re superstars in their essential roles of getting country acts from gig to gig, drumming up business and buzz and making stars look and sound awesome when they hit the stage.
Crews and associates of some of today’s top ticket-selling country artists were awarded, including those affiliated with Kenny Chesney, Luke Combs and Dierks Bentley, who hopped on stage to accept for his lighting director in that category. There were fetes to fallen comrades, including a heartfelt tribute to tour and production manager Randy “Baja” Fletcher, who started his career on the road as a roadie for ZZ Top and Waylon Jennings and eventually hooked up with the country superstar duo Brooks & Dunn, and then Urban. Baja died in 2021 on the job, and on the road, from injuries he sustained in a fall preparing for an Urban performance in Ohio.
The evening’s highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, went to John Huie, who helped open the Nashville satellite branch of the Creative Artists Agency, the California powerhouse talent agency, in the early 1990s. With a career stretching across the formats of Southern rock, contemporary Christian, New York punk, reggae and, yes, country, Huie was noted for bringing a muscular rock ‘n’ roll sensibility and a keen business acumen to Nashville, helping to cultivate, and elevate, country acts into globe-trotting, arena-filling superstars. Video tributes from Joan Jett, Amy Grant and Zac Brown lauded his unflagging support, intense dedication to his artists and wide-ranging contributions.
The awards also noted the vital importance of modern multimedia, with trophies for Tour Video Director and Tour Videographer/Photographer. I sat next to one of the nominees, Phil Nudelman, who lives in Los Angeles and has been the video director for Urban for nearly nine years, part of the superstar’s rolling armada of crew and support staff for every performance. Nudelman and his crew set up the multiple cameras (hand-held, mounted, robotic and small “lipstick” POV units) that capture in high-def intimacy what’s happening on stage, and broadcast it live onto massive LED screens — making the stars shine jumbo-style, crystal-clear and fully visible to even the most remote seats in the house.
“We move a city every day,” Nudelman says, “set it up, then take it down.” It was no wonder that many winners at the podium described being part of the musical community as a high life of great times and constantly changing scenery, like gypsies or a traveling circus.
A lot of people used another word, too: Family.
Nudelman didn’t win, but that didn’t dim his enthusiasm for being there, and his praise for just being considered. He’s also worked with rock acts, including Aerosmith, Santana, Tom Petty and the Foo Fighters — another example of a seasoned rock pro bringing essential skills to the staging, sight and sound experience of modern country. But he says there’s something unique about being part of a country crew, and within the Nashville music business, “it really does feel like a family,” he says. “Everybody supports everybody else. I’m not sure it’s that way in other kinds of music.”
The evening’s briefest acceptance speech was a simple “Thank you” from the winner of the Coach/Truck Driver of the Year, John Stadler, who drives for Kenny Chesney. But there was a lot riding on those two little words — about how country music travels on wheels and highways, and how someone, like Stadler, does the driving.
Urban also did some of the driving, once upon a time, venturing behind the wheel of his leased customized Silver Eagle to see what it was like.
“It was early in my career,” he admits with a laugh. “I wondered, ‘How hard is it to drive a bus? It can’t be that hard.’” He found out. “I jackknifed the trailer and put a big dent in it, and in the bus.”
“That,” he says, “was the end of my bus driving days.”
And it was the beginning of his deep appreciation for those who do the all the things that support what entertainers do. It’s a truly collaborative effort, says Urban, who was more than happy, for one night, to spread the warm glow of the spotlight around.
“I see myself as someone bringing a skill set to the team, really no different to everybody else and their skill. I sing, I write songs, I entertain. Those are my skills,” he says. “But I can’t tour manage, I can’t mix front-of-house sound, I can’t do production managing. I don’t know how to do those things. But there are people [around me] who have those skills.
“And when we all work together, that’s what makes us.”
The full list of winners in the 15 member-voted categories:
CATEGORY 1 – BUSINESS MANAGER OF THE YEAR
Stephanie Mundy Self (Farris, Self & Moore, LLC)
CATEGORY 2 – COACH/TRUCK DRIVER OF THE YEAR
John Stalder (Kenny Chesney)
CATEGORY 3 – FRONT OF HOUSE (FOH) ENGINEER OF THE YEAR
Robert Scovill (Kenny Chesney)
CATEGORY 4 – LIGHTING DIRECTOR OF THE YEAR
Chris Reade (Dierks Bentley)
CATEGORY 5 – MANAGER OF THE YEAR
Chris Kappy (Make Wake Artists)
CATEGORY 6 – TOUR MANAGER OF THE YEAR
David Farmer (Kenny Chesney)
CATEGORY 7 – MONITOR ENGINEER OF THE YEAR
Michael Zuehsow (Luke Combs)
CATEGORY 8 – PRODUCTION MANAGER OF THE YEAR
Jerry Slone (Luke Combs)
CATEGORY 9 – PUBLICIST OF THE YEAR
Ebie McFarland (Essential Broadcast Media)
CATEGORY 10 – TALENT AGENT OF THE YEAR
Austin Neal (The Neal Agency)
CATEGORY 11 – TALENT BUYER/PROMOTER OF THE YEAR
Brian O’Connell (Live Nation Nashville)
CATEGORY 12 – TOUR VIDEOGRAPHER/PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR
Jill Trunnell (Kenny Chesney)
CATEGORY 13 – TOUR VIDEO DIRECTOR OF THE YEAR
Tyler Hutcheson (Luke Combs)
CATEGORY 14 – TOURING MUSICIAN OF THE YEAR
Dan Hochhalter (Dierks Bentley)
CATEGORY 15 – VENUE OF THE YEAR
Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN)