Where else can you go to sit on an uncomfortable seat with hundreds of your peers to watch the CMAs on a screen quite possibly smaller than the one in your own living room? Why, the very special place that is an awards show press room — where winners come to make their trophy-touting speeches, reporters spend the night Googling “stick-on panties” and cupcakes go to die. Rolling Stone Country went backstage to share our dispatches from the action.
First lesson of the pressroom: It’s for media, not talent. Hustling from the red carpet after a quick chat with the Band Perry, we bumped into Chip Esten (i.e. Deacon Claybourne from Nashville) on the way in. Other way, Chip — promise your seat is better than ours.
Second lesson: Beware the cupcake. In what we’re all sure is a nice gesture, the CMA public relations team had placed a vanilla cupcake atop an upside-down mug for each journalist to eat. We all glanced at it confused; no one appeared to try it. “Is it real?” asked a reporter seated behind us, after which we decide that, much like Kacey Musgraves‘ hair, it’s better to look and not touch.
First back to the press stage was former football phenom Tim Tebow. He posed for pictures wearing what seemed to be three different shades of black, if that’s possible. “I’m a huge fan of country music, been a huge fan since I was a boy,” is all he said. And that’s it. This poetic statement did not, however, prompt the free agent to be immediately snapped up by a team. Sorry, Tim.
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In the press room, we spend about a quarter of the time watching the show, a quarter of the time listening to backstage speeches, a quarter of the time “going to the bathroom” to see if we can get a glimpse of Ariana Grande fixing her ponytail and a quarter of the time politely laughing at Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood’s jokes as if their managers were watching us. There are collective oohs and aahs: everyone seemed to get quiet when Underwood whispers the sex of her baby into Paisley’s ear, as if that would help us hear; everyone applauded when Loretta Lynn shows up, everyone felt a little shocked when Brett Eldredge unexpectedly took the New Artist of the Year award.
We ran into Eldredge on the way to the bathroom, where he picked up his award and ran his hands over it in a way that, if he rubbed it enough, a genie might come out. He was shaking and authentically surprised. “We all worked so hard to get to this point, anybody could have won this award,” he said about his fellow nominees. “I’m very fortunate that I did, but we all worked so hard. They’re all tearing it up out there. I’m glad I won, but we’re all good buddies.” He then headed on to the press stage and told the media that the inspiration for his uncharacteristically-country tux came from Old Blue Eyes.
“I just always loved Frank Sinatra,” he said. “I’m wearing a tux right now because I wanted to wear something like Frank would have worn. I try to take from different influences, but I’m so glad country music is my home. I would go nowhere else.”
Next up was Ashley Monroe, who revealed to the press what her “Lonely Tonight” duet partner, Blake Shelton, had said when he approached her about the song. “Blake texted me and said, ‘There’s this song I really love and I believe in. If you don’t love it, you can’t sing it.’ And I said, ‘Send it to me right now!’ [I thought] please let me love it. And I did. I love the melody and I love Blake. I couldn’t be more honored to be on it.” Apparently her next album is due in the new year, with a song written with fellow Pistol Annie Miranda Lambert.
The presence of a blonde inspired everyone to discuss Taylor Swift. Where is she? Rumors had her in Nashville dining in the Gulch, social media photos showed her hiking at a Music City park earlier in the day… but no one saw the Female Vocalist nominee at the awards.
Then, someone came onstage and announced that “Kacey Musgarooves” was up next. Whoops. Guess he didn’t like “Follow Your Arrow” — which is no matter, everyone else did, giving it the award for Song of the Year. She hit the press conference riser with co-writers Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark — according to a conversation last week with McAnally, the three were just at a retreat in Texas, working on new material.
Someone asked Musgraves about her “rebel” status — and she didn’t look thrilled. “It’s funny, people always try to bring up the rebel card with me,” she said. “And I just think it’s kind of hilarious, and — not to be rude — cheap. Because if you go back in time to the people who founded this genre — Hank Williams, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn — they were singing about things that impacted every single person in real life. I’m nothing new. I’m just carrying on the tradition of telling the truth.”
As for Lynn, “it’s been really cool to see her, in a sense, pass the torch to me,” Musgraves added, her hair looking smaller in person, “which I will gladly take.” We then learned that somehow her stick-on panties came off, which inspires five minutes of Googling. First up: an adhesive pair of underwear that looks like a giant band-aid, and comes in leopard or neutral. Next, we accidentally click on “Kitty Carpet: the reusable downstairs toupee.” A whole new word revealed itself — and we then deleted our search history.
Vince Gill, soft-spoken and sincerely humble, is a strange but welcome foil to all this panty-searching. He was still spinning from last night’s BMI Awards, where he was honored as a songwriter. “Everyone’s career is going to be slightly fleeting, have ups and downs. But those songs last forever,” he said.
Little Big Town were up next, safely available to approach the press after risking near-electrocution with glow-stick costumes during their performance with Ariana Grande (lucky for them, the set designer didn’t assume they were going to play “Pontoon” and engineer some water effects to match).
“So many people and so many wires in all kinds of places,” Kimberly Schlapman, now back in plebeian clothes, said on the contraptions. “We couldn’t bend over, and we couldn’t turn to the side or we would short out.”
Her bandmate Karen Fairchild explained that the pressure to keep topping themselves at awards shows comes from one particular critic: her shoe salesman. “There’s a lady at the shoe department at Nordstrom’s and she expects big things every time,” Fairchild laughed. “We want to do something fun that we’ve never done before. It’s the same way that we approach records.” Also, she’ll take those Manolos in a size eight please.
So far, everything had been pretty G-rated, but leave it to Blake Shelton to drop an F-bomb. “To be where I am in my career, this far into it, and have it be — I’m not going to say the ‘later’ part of my career — because, fuck that — I hope this is like, the second quarter right now.” Shelton snagged the Male Vocalist of the Year award for the consecutive fifth time, now tied for the record with Gill. “It’s easy for me, on one hand, to go, ‘A lot of this stuff is definitely because of The Voice,'” he said. “But on the other hand, The Voice is because of the music. They’ve gone hand in hand. It’s just been the perfect recipe.”
Naturally, Shelton’s wife, Miranda Lambert, was next — struggling to pose with her four CMA trophies in what seemed like her hundredth dress change. “I feel like everything goes through phases,” she said to a reporter who asked about women’s current stance in country music. “Either way, right now country music is the most popular music. I definitely feel like girls do have a lot to say. I feel like Kacey won Song of the Year and girls are represented really well tonight. I feel like it’s about to come back to the forefront.” Lambert now has more trophies than any woman in CMA history. One small step for womankind, one giant leap for Kacey Musgraves’ panties.
Last, but not least, came Entertainer of the Year winner Luke Bryan, who bounded on stage in traditional Luke Bryan fashion — pumping his award into the air like it was a football post-touchdown (Hey, Tim Tebow, are you watching?). “To get the respect of the CMA board is a ginormous deal,” he said, using an appropriately Bryanesque lexicon. “My whole career from the time I was playing in bars when I was a teenager, till now, I just had to watch the fans. Even if I was doing a cover and the people in the room didn’t react, I didn’t play that cover anymore.” It’s his first CMA award ever, so he got some lofty applause from the peanut gallery. It was also near 11 pm and way past dinner, so it was an appropriate time to poke at the cupcake, only to have someone inform us that it’s been sitting there since the early afternoon.
“I think it gets better with age,” we’re told before heading out into the abyss of Lower Broadway, having learned so much about music, pastries and panties to last a lifetime — or at least until next CMAs.