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CMT Music Awards Preview: Producers Give Lowdown on What to Expect From Jelly Roll, Toby Keith Tribute, Kelsea Ballerini, Dasha and More

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Tonight’s CMT Music Awards show will endeavor to emphasize what’s currently flameworthy, to borrow a word that has long since been retired from the telecast’s original name. Prime performance slots have been given to country music figures who are still on the ascent, from still-fairly-freshly-minted superstars Jelly Roll and Lainey Wilson to up-and-comers who really seem fresh out of the oven, like Megan Moroney and TikTok sensation Dasha (pictured above, in rehearsals).

To a less emphatic extent, “we also know that we have to pay homage to the artists that got us here,” says executive producer John Hamlin, which for the 2024 show means paying tribute to two icons of ’90s country. “So we’re thrilled to be honoring Trisha Yearwood this year, something that Margaret Comeaux and Leslie Fram [his fellow producer] spent a lot of time orchestrating to make happen for the show. So having Trisha and then having Brooks and Dunn do the Toby Keith tribute makes us feel good too. We like a little bit of all of it. It is a jigsaw puzzle, and we want to get all the right pieces so it fits perfectly together.”

And 2000s country is neither too old nor too new to also get its due, in a not overly nostalgic way. Little Big Town, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and Sugarland, which broke out two decades ago, will be performing together on the show for the first time since 2008, back when the broadcast was still called the CMT Flameworthy Video Awards, albeit premiering a brand new joint single. “Putting all those voices together, you can just imagine what’s gonna happen,” said Fram. She was speaking shortly before a rehearsal of the two groups’ collaboration that was a veritable act of traffic-cop direction, with camera blocking having to allow for six lead singers.

Hamlin, Comeaux and Fram sat down at the producers’ desk during a pause in rehearsals Saturday at Austin’s Moody Center to offer Variety a preview of how a few key jigsaw pieces came together, and what they expect the show highlights to be. (The fourth executive producer, Jason Owen, had other duties to attend to during the time-out, as he also has two key managerial clients on the show, Little Big Town and host/performer Kelsea Ballerini.)

The show’s bookends: “Cody Johnson’s gonna open the show with a song called ‘That’s Texas,’” Hamlin reveals, “and Jelly Roll’s gonna close the show with ‘Halfway to Hell,’ so we’re starting it in Texas and we’re closing it with Jelly Roll…” He politely refrains from adding …in hell, but perhaps it goes without saying that there’ll be plenty of pyro during Jelly Roll’s barnburner, which will have the rapper-turned-country-star finally getting a live TV berth for a rouser that has been a key part of his live sets off his smash “Whitsitt Chapel” album.

Jelly Roll’s performance in 2023 of “Need a Favor” on the CMTs coincided with the show getting millions more eyeballs as a result of the show airing on CBS for the first time instead of “just” CMT and its Viacom cabler sisters. It’s widely credited with giving him the turbo boost that accelerated him toward being what can reasonably be considered a superstar of the genre.

“Last year, it was his coming-out party,” says Hamlin. “Aand when he walked out on the stage for rehearsal yesterday, he looked at all of us producers sitting here at the table and said, ‘Hey, guys. It’s our one-year anniversary!’” Adds Fram, “He talks about it all the time, how … he has had just an enormous year, but it all started here last year.”

AUSTIN, TEXAS – APRIL 05: Jelly Roll attends the 2024 CMT Music Awards – Rehearsals – Day One at Moody Center on April 05, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Catherine Powell/Getty Images for CMT)
Getty Images for CMT

“He’s just a joy to be around,” notes Hamlin. “He has time for everybody who says something to him. He hangs out with the crew. He invited our stage manager to go out with him in Austin last night, because he knew him from being on ‘American Idol.’” (Coincidentally, Jelly Roll’s recently filmed mentorship stint on “Idol” airs the night after the CMT Awards.) With his devil-or-angel-may care attitude, “he just makes everybody around him happy.”

That lightning probably can’t strike twice in a row, given the limited number of Jelly Rolls in the world. But if there’s a candidate for it, it might be Dasha, who has racked up billions of TikTok views for her “Austin” single in a matter of a few months, mostly concentrated in the last few weeks. This will mark her first prime-time performance, after recently making a network debut with a Jimmy Kimmel turn.

Says Hamlin, “We try to save one spot — and it’s hard because we have so many people that want to be on the show. But we try to wait until a month out to book the last performance, because we don’t want to miss something that’s blowing up right when our show’s happening. And that is exactly the case with this young woman. I mean, 6 billion views around the world, and like, it’s five and a half billion of those views have happened in the last 30 days. We like being right on the curve, and she fits the bill this year.”

AUSTIN, TEXAS – APRIL 05: Dasha attends the 2024 CMT Music Awards – Rehearsals – Day One at Moody Center on April 05, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Catherine Powell/Getty Images for CMT)
Getty Images for CMT

“The other thing is, a song’s an undeniable hit, and she’s got an amazing voice” adds Fram, “and the fact that she had never been to Austin, and the song’s called ‘Austin’… it just fits.”

“I think this is gonna be a coming out party for Megan Moroney as well,” notes Hamlin. Comeaux notes that the “Tennessee Orange” hitmaker won her first award on the CMTs last year. This time she’ll recreate her featured appearance on a current Old Dominion single as well as go solo with her recently released non-album single “No Caller ID,” a ballad in the classic country tradition.

While Moroney will be doing her own song live, she already shot “Can’t Break Up Now” with Old Dominion as part of a series of performances that were pre-taped during the last week outdoors in front of the UT Texas tower, with students making up most of the crowds there.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – APRIL 05: Megan Moroney performs during the 2024 CMT Music Awards – Rehearsals – Day One at Moody Center on April 05, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Catherine Powell/Getty Images for CMT)
Getty Images for CMT

“We had already booked her to do her own song,” Hamlin says, “and Old Dominion asked if we would mind if we would let her do a second appearance with them, and we were happy to because the song’s a great song. Old Dominion’s manager offered up a plan. She was part of a multi-artist benefit show at the Ryman in Nashville Wednesday night. She moved her performance up to be right at the top of the show at 7:30, walked out of the Ryman Auditorium at about 7:52, got in a waiting car to Nashville International, got on a private plane, flew here, landed at 10:20 — and she was due on stage at 10:50. And literally the car pulled up to the stage and she walked on and we recorded her song with Old Dominion. We were a little nervous about that, because if there was bad weather and she got delayed, we were gonna be stuck.”

That won’t be the only featured duet, although Hamlin says the show, unlike some other awards perennials, doesn’t put a particular spotlight on pairing artists just for the sake of it.

Parker McCollum’s current single, “Burn It Down,” doesn’t have a feature on it, but Brittney Spencer — who recently released her Big Machine country album debut, and who is getting some attention for an appearance on the Beyonce album — will help give the track a different spin. That one was also recorded already at the UT Texas stage. “That, I predict, will be one of the top three performances in the show,” says Hamlin. “I went to work it out with them. Parker was doing his tour rehearsals at a small arena north of Nashville, and Brittney came out and we worked through it and figured out a way to make it work perfectly for the two of them as a real duet, not just her singing harmony. And it’s a smoldering version of that song.” Adds Comeaux, “She just adds magic to whatever she does. Her voice is out of this world.”

Although Jelly Roll has been the success story of the last year, Bailey Zimmerman would probably own that title if there hadn’t been so much competitive action in country, and Hamlin speaks up to “say that Bailey Zimmerman’s performance [of “Where It Ends”] is a coming-out party for him too. He really killed it.”

With the Toby Keith three-part tribute, “Toby’s had a very important relationship with this brand and this channel for 20 years now,” Hamlin points out. “He never mailed it in on music videos; they were always clever, funny, memorable on almost every occasion. The CMT Music Awards is honoring music videos to this day, and he’s an icon to this brand, so he will be greatly missed for sure. And yes, we wanted to try to do it right. I, for one, don’t love medleys in shows. And so we really kind of went out of our way to make sure that we picked his three biggest songs and found the right people to do them. We have a classic ‘90s superstar act, Brooks and Dunn, doing [“Shoud’ve Been a Cowboy”]. We have one of his best friends, Sammy Hagar, a classic rocker — they were very, very close—  doing his second biggest song [“I Love This Bar”]. And then we’ve got a woman of the moment, one of our biggest current stars, Lainey Wilson, doing ‘How Do You Like Me Now?’ And when we made that suggestion to her, she was like, ‘Absolutely. That’s perfect.’” (Befitting her current queenly status in the genre, Wilson will also get a separate spot on the show, doing her own new single, “Country’s Cool Again.”)

The Keith-related programming will carry over to a special on the titular network, CMT, with some additional material being filmed behind the scenes at the CMTs. Says Comeaux, “As John talked about the importance of Toby to the channel over the years, we wanted to find a way to further honor him. So we went back to the archives of the CMT Music Awards — him doing 11 performances and hosting it twice and multiple times he won. We are going to highlight those moments iand do an hour-long special on the channel that’ll follow the re-air of this on CMT on Thursday. As much as it’s gonna be fantastic to hear people sing his songs to honor his memory, this will be a nice way for us to go back and actually hear Toby singing those songs.”

The CMT Awards will also preview another piece of upcoming CMT programming, as Jordan Davis and the pop group Needtobreathe will be collaborating on the show, on the heels of filming a “CMT Crossroads” episode in Austin Friday night. While the two acts didn’t do any medleys during that joint taping, they fashioned one for the CMT Awards, combining Needtobreathe’s “Brother”with Davis’ “Next Thing You Know.”

AUSTIN, TEXAS – APRIL 06: Jordan Davis and Bear Rinehart of perform during the 2024 CMT Music Awards – Rehearsals – Day Two at Moody Center on April 05, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Catherine Powell/Getty Images for CMT)
Getty Images for CMT

The list of performances continues with Keith Urban offering the world premiere of a new rocker, “Straight Road,” from a forthcoming album. Yearwood will also be giving the country world its first taste of a coming project with a previously unheard number, “Put It in a Song,” from her first album consisting of all songs she has co-written — accompanying her being presented with the inaugural June Carter Cash Humanitarian Award for her work with Habitat for Humanity.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – APRIL 06: Trisha Yearwood attends the 2024 CMT Music Awards – Rehearsals – Day Two at Moody Center on April 05, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Catherine Powell/Getty Images for CMT)
Getty Images for CMT

Sam Hunt will do a Johnny Cash-style prison-themed presentation for recently released single “Locked Up,” a song that only goes to prison metaphorically on record. And Jason Aldean was among those pre-taping UT Tower performances earlier in the week, with “Let Your Boys Be Country.”

This year marks the second year in Austin, second year on CBS. “When CBS decided to air this, the message that we got the entire time is that they did not want us to change what we do,” Hamlin says. “And we get comments all the time that our show does not feel like the two or three other country music shows that are on the broadcasting landscape throughout the year.” (If there’s an approximation in his count, that’s to do with the fact that the half-century-old CMA and ACM awards programs, and this one, have been joined in the field by the People’s Choice Country Awards, the latest of several attempts in the last couple decades to put a fourth country kudocast on the calendar.)

“This thing about the fans being standing room only/GA on the floor, there’s no other show that does that,” he continues. “Every other award show has row after row after row after row of people in suits right up against the stage in a very staid and more formal atmosphere. We’re anything but that. We want it to feel like a rock festival on the floor.” The starpower is concentrated in a loge ring hovering just above the floor.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – APRIL 05: Kelsea Ballerini attends the 2024 CMT Music Awards – Rehearsals – Day One at Moody Center on April 05, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Catherine Powell/Getty Images for CMT)
Getty Images for CMT

Kelsea Ballerini has said that this fourth year as host — and first time hosting solo — will mark her last turn fronting the CMTs. “When you talk about artists being comfortable on camera, I’ve never seen an artist as comfortable and have so much confidence in front of a camera as Kelsea,” says Fram. “She puts her own personality into it and makes recommendations on the scripts, and we give her that latitude of what she wants to do.” Fram has big expectations for how Ballerini’s musical number will go over as well — a much differently flavored remake of her seminal hit “Love Me Like You Mean It,” shot earlier this week at the UT Tower.

Have they started thinking about Ballerini’s replacement for 2025? “We’re always thinking about that,” says Hamlin, suggesting there may be a front-runner. “You might see someone hosting next year that you’ll see on this stage on Sunday night.”