By Holly Gleason

Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern has seen and done it all, having previously held major posts at CSPAN (producing the cable network’s Book Notes for most of the ’90s), HGTV and Great American Country. Before that, she learned classical violin, spent her summers going to bluegrass festivals with her father, studied at Georgetown and earned a master’s from Vanderbilt. Curiosity, focus and eclecticism define Trahern; for her, it comes down to how something expands our understanding. With Nashville confronting tornadoes, COVID, the upending of touring, the bumping of CMA MusicFest to 2021 and CMA Awards season tilting in new directions, she’s got a lot on her plate right now.

How are you doing?
It’s crazy. The decision to cancel CMA Fest feels like it was yesterday, but it was March. We postponed so fans could keep their tickets for next year and have time to get sorted out. To the strength of the event, we’d almost sold out before we even released the first names—and almost 75% have held onto their tickets.

I had one team dealing with fans, artists, logistics, then another digging into what we’re gonna do to bridge the connection gap, to give the fans something in its place. Electric Machine and our teams went to work on the Summer Stay-Cay, which will livestream on Facebook and YouTube, and [CMA Awards and CMA Fest Executive Producer] Robert Deaton dug into Best of MusicFest for our network-television partner, bringing together some of the very best performances over all the years.

This also gave us a chance to talk about what our member engagement really means. To focus on that is important, whether it’s webinars on how to fill out the unemployment forms or maximizing creativity to our charitable outreach. We gave a million dollars to MusiCares and made a six-figure donation to the Music Healthcare Alliance. We want to be here for the members. It’s such a busy year, but this lets us also get back to our roots as an organization.

Sounds like there’s no slowing down.
I’m incredibly impressed with how our teams have been not just keeping busy but also being relevant in how they’re engaging and being productive as a team, as individuals and with our members. The industry feels smaller. We’re all feeling it, being in the throes of all this. In country music, we all rise together.

How so?
I see the venues all coming together. Is hell going to freeze over because Live Nation and AEG are trying to sort through these issues and figure out how to get back to work? This is what country music does best: pull together.

What’s happening with the CMA Awards?
[Laughs] Well, it’s not going to be at all what our show normally is. But our show will ideally be live and representative of the best of the year, like always. We have multiple scenarios; I’d be irresponsible if we didn’t. But if you think about how much we’ve learned from March until now, we’ve had so many things change and shift, the evolution is daily. It forces you to be creative, to look at the “why,” and that’s not a bad thing. It also forces you to slow down, to ask, “What am I doing to move the ball forward?” It’s incremental but intentional—and you’d be surprised what you learn and where you end up.

We’re five months away, and two or three more things could happen. It’s about being nimble, adapting our plan as we go. We need to maintain the best of the best in what we do; the people who get nominated should feel the same honor.

You seem hopeful.
Artists are still releasing music and communicating with their fans—they’re still connecting! I’m so proud of our community, because that hasn’t stopped. Of the music released during the last month or so, Eric Church, Mickey Guyton and Kane Brown have all released songs that have really spoken their truths. We’re at a time when people are at home really listening, and lyrics matter. The power of music in times like this is so important.

Do you see this as a trend?
I love that artists are saying powerful things. Nothing’s better to me than a genuinely great song, and the writers and artists have time to really reflect right now. What we’ve seen over the last few weeks is something we’re going to see more of. And when we do it well, all this music is the music of our lives, but it can speak across genres too.

Diversity comes to mind.
There will definitely be more voices. Our research shows we are growing in our diverse fanbase. I prefer the word “inclusive,” because it’s bringing people together. The better the music, the more room for everyone—and the more different kinds of people who love it.

Should we talk about women?
CMA’s role isn’t to decide who gets played on Country radio or streamed. We’re a big tent; we make sure everyone who loves this music gets support. Our job is to keep country music strong for the people who love it, not to keep it strong for the left or the right.

Meaning what, exactly?
We’re against racism. We’re pro-women. We don’t turn people away. There’s amazing success in all kinds of places. Ingrid, Tenille and Gabby are all having these incredible consumption stories; Ashley McBryde keeps getting more and more success with something very specific to her. And I just presented Carly Pearce gold and platinum certifications for her music in something we taped with her. Then you look at Darius, Jimmie and Kane, who’ve all had huge commercial success at radio and touring. Mickey’s got a song with a great message that helps us come together from a place of understanding.

You seem to say that from a deep place.
One summer, while I was still working in D.C., my dad and I went to MerleFest. We had a journalist from The Nation who’d come down from New York, working around CSPAN. He was everything you’d expect from someone at a publication like that, and we ran into him at the bluegrass festival. We started talking to him, asked him to sit down. On the other side was a North Carolina farmer in his overalls, looking like a rural guy with a farmer’s tan, who’d come to hear the music. They couldn’t have been more different, but when my dad and I got up to go to another stage, the journalist moved over, and they just kept talking. Music is a unifier. People right now are having conversations that are divisive, but if people let the music do what it does, we might be surprised.

We’ve all had to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable these last few months. But in this business, the community feels like it’s smaller because we’re all in this together, facing the same problems and living with the same uncertainties. In the end, we all want to come out of this on the other side, stronger, smarter and kinder.

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