Pull up your britches, Mixers: The full breakdown from day two of CMA rehearsals is finally here for your enjoyment. (Read yesterday’s report here!) There was a long, empty break in the middle of my day due to closed rehearsals from Taylor Swift and Brooks & Dunn, but we’ve got your Lady Antebellum, your Kenny Chesney, your Sugarland, your Jason Aldean, and your Darius Rucker. Plus, just enough preview scoop to keep you kids interested, but prevent the show’s producers from hanging me by my ankles off the Nashville Visitor Center. Yay!
10:05 a.m. Two men talking in Sommet Center hallway. One with ponytail says to one without: “She will never set foot on another awards show stage without him next to her.” I have no idea what they are talking about, but in my mind, “she” is T-Swizzle, and “him” is a giant abominable snowman wearing a tiny, tiny cowboy hat.
10:07 The Lady Antebellum set is gorgeous: video screens with shadowy branches and winter street scenes, white Christmas lights strung everywhere. It looks like sadness and longing, which I guess is what “Need You Now” – the song they’re performing – is all about. Well. Sadness, longing, and booty calls.
10:13 The Lady A’s start their first rough sing-thru. Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott are standing side by side. Dave Haywood is seated next to them at the helm of a giant grand piano. They have six band members at the moment, three of whom are playing guitar. The Lady A publicist tries to convince me that only two people are playing guitar, but I am good at counting and there are three. The Lady A’s are clearly aiming to bring the noise. (No word on the whereabouts of the funk here in Nashvegas.) (Check “Make unnecessary tap-dancing jokes” off the bucket list!)
10:21 The Lady A’s share a publicity representative with one Jason Aldean, who will be rehearsing later tonight. I ask her if a big green tractor will in fact be appearing on stage. She says, “Yeah. We’re gonna repaint the zamboni.” She also discloses that Hillary is testing dresses for the performance right now – patterned or plain? They ultimately go plain. I am now America’s most trusted source for country music awards show apparel news.
10:22 The Lady A’s are practicing the chorus of “Need You Now” in all its three-part harmony glory. They are doing it a capella, and it sounds like church.
10:41 I would like to see a remake of From Justin to Kelly starring Charles and Hillary. And Dave as the jilted ex-lover.
10:42 Holy crap it is snowing on stage.
10:55 Dear Lady Antebellum: You know your band is good when people from other labels are making sardonic jokes like, “Yeah, we could have signed ‘em. Whew. Dodged a bullet there.”
11:02 After at least four runs through the song, the Lady A’s are now watching it on playback to ensure that “Need You Now” gets lodged in my skull all day. I pull Hillary aside and she says it’s important to watch the performance back before they do it live. “It’s always good to be able to visualize it and be like, ‘Okay, that move looked good,’ or ‘I could go a little further with that if I want to…’” she explains. I run my From Justin to Kelly idea past her and she laughs, but says Dave-as-jilted-guy doesn’t quite work: “Dave gets all the love in our band. They line up for Dave!” We chat a bit about how her guitar playing is going (“I’ve been sucking lately”), and then we have a great chat about songwriting. I’m going to hold some of it back in hopes that I can get you guys a preview of a track off the upcoming Lady A album called “Ready to Love Again” – Hillary says that one especially stems from her personal life, and she’s got some great stuff to say about songwriting-as-alternative-journaling.
Instead, I’ll reprint what she had to say about Charles and Dave’s recent success as songwriters with Luke Bryan’s “Do I”: “The Luke song, they played it for me, and it was just guitar and vocals, and I flipped out,” she says. “They were like, ‘Yeah, we’re not really sure what Luke thinks of it,’ and I was like, ‘Give me the phone right now.’ I lit into him. I was like, ‘It’s a side of you nobody’s seen, the girls are gonna love you.’ And then I was so excited when he asked me to sing on it. I really did light a big fire under his rear end to cut it.”
Hillary Scott: One-third of the reason why Lady Antebellum are the cutest box of puppies in Nashville.
11:26 The track for “I’m Alive” begins to float peacefully from the speakers. Kenny Chesney and duet partner Dave Matthews will be performing from two simple stools in the center of the stage, with some really gorgeous lights and a starlit backdrop. Right now, however, Dave Matthews looks a lot like a friendly gray-haired roadie. (Dave is not yet in town.) Kenny sings through the song on his own a few times, and since I’ve been told he doesn’t have time for interviews – he has to head straight out to watch a cut of his newly-announced 3-D movie – I’m taking off for the closed portion of the afternoon.
5:22 p.m. After a very productive work break back at the hotel, I have returned to Sommet for Sugarland’s rehearsal, but things are running late, and I’m escorted into the arena just in time to see Brooks & Dunn’s final pass at [SONG REDACTED because this rehearsal was supposed to be closed to media, so I was not there and I don’t know anything about it]. Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush are in the middle of an interview when the song starts, and they turn to watch the soon-to-be-broken-up former reigning Duo of the Year. Every camera in the joint is immediately focused on them.
5:35 Ladies and Gentlemen: Sugarland, in Q&A format because there are two of them and they talk in very short sentences on top of each other, and it’s just easier.
EW: How’s the CMA experience so far? Have you done anything?
K: There’s been a green room.
J: We met our string players.
EW: You have string players?
J: First time we’ve ever done that.
EW: You’re doing “Keep You.” And where the strings come in, in the song, that’s where they will be used?
J: Yes. We were gonna use them for some acrobatic and pyrotechnic stunts before they sat down with the instruments, but then we thought, Maybe it would be good to just let them play when the strings come in.
EW: Wouldn’t surprise anyone if you went for the acrobatics.
K: The big surprise this year? The stationary part.
J: We’re not dancing.
EW: Will you be cutting off your hair again?
J: Thought about it.
K: With lasers.
J: Very precise.
EW: Are you going to win everything you are nominated for?
J: Sure. Why not? We don’t know.
EW: Is it okay if Brooks & Dunn get a victory lap?
J: Yeah. It’s okay.
K: I hope we win Album of the Year. Cause we made a really good album.
J: And we cared about it.
K: We tried so hard.
5:40 Sugarland takes the stage with their fancy new string section and launches into “Keep You.” Nettles in fact does not start chopping off all her hair.
5:50 Stage manager over P.A.: “Everyone in the audience? We’re gonna use the lasers now. So just be careful where you’re looking. Especially up top.”
6:03 OMG LASERS!!!! MY EYES!!!!!!!!
6:04 Nobutforreal: What do lasers have to do with this song?
6:14 Stage manager over P.A.: “Okay, one more pass, with ground fog and lasers… and the water drop will be on the last chorus. We’re going to soak the two of them.” Uh. Tell me you are kidding.
6:20 They were kidding.
6:22 Prediction: Randy Houser and GMA’s Robin Roberts will be the weirdest presenting pair of the night.
6:56 Jason Aldean starts “Big Green Tractor.” The lights overhead go green and suddenly it looks very much like the MGM Grand Vegas arena in here, and I get really confused which month it is and what awards show I’m currently covering. Also, I think Aldean’s band is playing totally live – no track. This is cool. I ask him why he takes the risk, and he says, “Because I think playing with track sucks, that’s why.” Now that, country friends, is an answer.
7:01 Okay. As a radio single, this song is gangbusters, but as a performance number, it sorta just sits there. Needs a zamboni! Or dancers. Jason Aldean and the Tractorettes!
7:25 I’ve gravitated to the back of the rink to chat up one Mr. Darius Rucker. He’s up for Best Male Vocalist and Best New Artist, and I ask him, if the categories were a golf game – you’ll recall he enjoys that sport – what kind of a handicap he’d have to spot his fellow nominees. “In golf?” he asks. “If we were playing golf, I’d have to give probably three a side to everybody. But if it’s for Top Male Vocalist, then I’m getting like ten a side.” He’ll admit that he’s got a bit of an advantage in New Artist, being as how he kind of isn’t one, but “I still think Zac Brown’s gonna win that,” he says. “They started something special.”
Rucker has also learned the most important lesson in this business of Nashville show: The difference between rock fans and country fans. Talking to country fans, he says, “You have to be really nice. You have to be reaaaaally nice.” He laughs. “I mean, rock fans are usually in awe in some way. Country fans come up to you and want to be your best friend.”
7:59 Darius finally starts into “Alright,” his voice sliding onto my ears like a cozy old UNC sweatshirt. He’s got his hands in his pockets, singing into a mic stand on stage, but after the first verse, they cut him off, and move him to the platform in the center of the room, try it out with him starting the song there. Before the song starts again, he jokingly gives a faux-bravura shout-out to his friends in the house, flashes the grin of a man whose hard work and humble attitude have given him a second-career miracle, and after the song’s introductory alrights, he ambles off the platform and up to the stage. I start to ponder the symbolism of the movement, but stop myself and realize that underneath the voice of The Man Formerly Known As Hootie is the first banjo I’ve heard played in two days of rehearsals for the Biggest Night in Country Music. And on that, I decide to call it a night. Outside the Sommet Center, across the street, Kid Rock is creating a total fan fustercluck in front of the Palm steakhouse. I step into 5th Avenue to squeeze by, and head home.
Not sure what’s happening with Tuesday’s rehearsals, Mixers, as for a while today, it was announced they’d been completely and utterly closed to media. It’s possible those standards are relaxing, and for your sake as well as my own, I hope I am able to bring you at least something from the Zac Brown Band, Daughtry, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Martina McBride, and George Strait, who doesn’t do interviews, but maybe I can stand there and drool on him for a while. Leave any questions in the comments, and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @EWMusicMix!
Photo Credit: Chris Hollo/ABC