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ROBERT DEATON TALKS CMAS
Country TV’s Go-to Guy Looks to Honor—and Make—History

Interview by Holly Gleason

Robert Deaton, longtime producer of ABC’s CMA Awards, airing tonight, laughs about a recent meeting with co-host Dolly Parton. Reminiscing with one of country’s most enduring icons, he marveled, “I’d been working with her since [the 1992 video for] ‘Silver & Gold,’ and here we are again.”

Establishing himself as the platinum standard for Nashville videos in the late ’80s, Deaton has shaped the way country music has been viewed for over three decades—and his passion for the genre shows in the two-time Emmy winner’s work. Beyond producing the opening for ESPN’s Monday Night Football, NBC’s Sports Illustrated: 50 Years of Beautiful and Fox’s The Passion With Tyler Perry, Deaton is the go-to guy for the CMA’s annual Country Christmas and Music Fest ABC specials, as well as helming NBC’s Soul to Soul for Tim McGraw & Faith Hill and directing the feature film Benched.

Perhaps only Deaton would’ve had the imagination to team three supernovas to co-host this year’s CMA Awards, but that’s why Deaton’s the man. With longevity, creativity and a wonderful collaborative spirit, he’s brought Parton and Reba together with 12-time hostess Carrie Underwood for a night of unbridled girl power.

What came first, the power-host troika or the concept?
We had the concept first. The idea to honor the women of country seemed like such an obvious call. Then came the question: Who would be the pie-in-the-sky host? You know, the really “hit it out of the park” call, because rarely does that ever happen. But over the course of a month, talking to each of them about what they’d like it to be, how they saw the show, it came together.

So how does one talk to three divas?
I just say, “Yes! Sounds good. Let’s do that.” [laughs] They are three strong alpha women, all individuals, all strong in their opinions. The key is really listening, making sure I truly understand what they’re saying and that I have a good sense of what they’re envisioning. Remember, all of them have a lot of experience hosting, doing things—especially television—across the entertainment business. They’re an incredibly strong team to work with.

Shatter a misconception people might have about working with three female superstars.
They’re always on time. They’re ready to work. They know their parts. They know what they want. There is no drama.

In this climate of women’s struggles at Country radio, that is a bold move.
When we started digging into the possibilities, we were all trying to honor the history of women in the genre, and showing the world how important to the fabric of country music women have been. Let’s remember, this whole journey was started by a female [with] The Bristol Sessions. Mother Maybelle [Carter] was there from the very beginning, and she continued to make a mark as a musician, a leader and a businesswoman.

But radio is very important to this story. They played these familiar records we’re going to revisit—like Reba doing “Fancy,” so many of the songs in the opener. The discoverability over the years of all these artists—that came from radio. We thank radio for the important part it played in the evolution of country music.

And you’re creating a show with as much emphasis on the past as the present.
One of the best shows I’ve ever done was the 50th Anniversary of the CMA. Hearing Clint Black do “Killin’ Time” and Alan Jackson play “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” was amazing. It felt like it does when it’s getting cold and you put that jacket on again. It’s comfortable, cozy and a really good kind of familiar.

So how much history? And how many women?
It’s two-thirds women and one-third men. It’s still an awards show, and we have to honor the nominees. I’ve got Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton doing something, and Blake doing “God’s Country.” Then Brothers Osborne and Brooks & Dunn, Chris Stapleton and P!nk, Lady A and Halsey, Kacey Musgraves and Willie Nelson.

The happy thing: We’re going to see a lot of women we haven’t in a while. We’re revisiting some of those iconic moments with the performers and presenters. Deana Carter’s presenting Single of the Year, and we’re going to show her winning that award and jumping into Ricky Skaggs’ arms. Jennifer Nettles, who won Song of the Year when she wrote “Stay,” is the same thing. Janie Fricke’s one of the presenters of Female Vocalist, and to be able to see her is thrilling.

Who else?
Kathy Mattea and Pam Tillis were both very important; to see them present is great. From a female perspective, we are going to have a very girl-power show.

Was it hard telling Brad Paisley?
Brad’s busy. He’s got specials on ABC and Amazon. He’s all for Carrie, and he knows it’s time to honor these women. He’s my brother and understands. It’s a bit like Seinfeld—they were running out of things to say to each other.

And how do you top Carrie, Reba and Dolly?
You can’t. So you look for different—and impactful. When I saw the key art [of the 2019 hosts], it took my breath away—literally. I thought, “How lucky are you?”

It can’t hurt that you have history with these women.
The history we have separately and now together is incredible. It allows us to work on a lot of levels. Dolly’s biggest CMA performance ever was “He’s Alive,” which was this big, over-the-top, incredible gospel moment. So this year, she’s doing something in that vein, because we know how people respond to her doing that.

It sounds like this show will just be good television, without qualifiers.
In a way, this isn’t about female artists, it’s about good music and our genre. But as a through line, it was fun and important, with this being the Year of the Woman. With what’s going on in the world at large, it’s not just the format, it’s the entire world raising its consciousness and celebrating women. So in a way, we’re part of something much bigger.

 

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