What Sets Apart the CMT Music Awards: 'We Like to Make People's Jaws Drop'

Kellie Pickler CMT Awards - H 2012
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Kellie Pickler CMT Awards - H 2012

Taking a page from sister-network MTV's anything-goes VMAs, this country music awards show banks on "the element of surprise."

All eyes will be on Nashville next month when the 11th annual CMT Music Awards descend upon the city’s Bridgestone Arena for a night of raucous performances, crazed fans and, of course, trophies.

The annual awards ceremony has become an integral stop on a crowded country music awards show circuit, which includes the Academy of Country Music Awards, American Country Awards and Country Music Association Awards.

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“Our tone is different,” CMT president Brian Philips tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Our toning is, intentionally, a bit more casual, a little more irreverent, and that’s by nature, I guess.

“We like things that are over the top, we like things that make peoples jaws drop,” he adds. “I don’t know if that is part of the recipe for every awards show on every network, but it certainly is for ours. The element of surprise.”

CMT makes no secret of having borrowed their format from sister-network MTV and their wildly successful VMAs, with Viacom president Van Toffler carefully watching over the show’s preparation and execution. CMT has also enlisted the help of MTV vet Michael Dempsey to produce this year’s show, along with art director Joe DeMaio. And like the VMAs, winners are fan-chosen, and the majority of the awards are geared towards the artists' videos, more than the music itself.

This year's ceremony will feature performances from Carrie Underwood (who has five nominations), Kenny Chesney (two nominations), Brad Paisley (two nominatons), Lady Antebellum (three nominations), Zac Brown Band (one nomination) and Little Big Town (one nomination), with more acts announced in the coming weeks.

“We always look forward to all the performances,” American Idol album and Female Video of the Year nominee Kellie Pickler tells THR. “The CMT Awards are much more laid back than the other award shows. It’s not so serious, you know -- it’s more edgy. It’s not as formal as the CMAs, which are more of an elegant event.”

It's all part of a concerted effort by producers to embrace the laid back roots from which country music was born. Fans attending the show are encouraged to don concert-friendly attire, dubbed “country chic,” rather than formal garb. 

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“When we cut away to the front of the stage, what you won't see is row after row of elderly folks in tuxedos looking down at their iPhones while the show goes on," Philips promises. "You’ll see the young, active CMT audience dancing up and down, losing their minds when their favorite stars perform and going crazy when their favorite artists win an award."

"We’re throwing a big party," he continues,"And by the way, we’re handing out awards. It’s an unpretentious show -- the atmosphere is not controlled, it’s more chaotic. In our humble opinion, it makes for better television.”

Though the fans are a central focus for show producers, the ceremony would go nowhere without the loyal support of the artists that carry it.

“It’s such an honor to be nominated,” gushes Pickler, who won three CMTs in 2008 for her tear jerking “I Wonder" clip. “There are a lot of videos out there, so just to be nominated is exciting and great. It’s really neat because it’s not industry -- it’s just the fans.”

Continuing its long-running tradition, the 2012 CMT Music Awards are expected to feature unscripted moments, surprises and perhaps a viral video or two. Taylor Swift created a pop culture phenomenon in 2009 when she remixed her “Love Story” single to a rap with T-Pain titled “Thug Story.” In 2011, Swift returned to remake Thelma & Louise, with country icon Shania Twain, into another viral video.

The 11th annual CMT Awards will get underway on June 6 at 8 p.m. ET, but fans hoping for an audience seat can purchase tickets on May 21. This year’s host, and the next round of performers, will be announced in the coming weeks. As always, the show will air live on CMT -- with a tape-delayed West Coast broadcast at 8 p.m. PT -- and will stream live at CMT.com.

Email: Sophie.Schillaci@thr.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci