CMT Music Awards and the Marriage of Country and Pop Culture

Kristen Bell Toby Keith CMT Awards John Hamlin Inste - H 2013

Kristen Bell Toby Keith CMT Awards John Hamlin Inste - H 2013

Network exec John Hamlin talks to THR about the magic (and terror) of unscripted moments, why country music is having its moment and the single greatest challenge in putting on a great awards show (hint: don't hire James Franco and Anne Hathaway).

Country music is having a moment.

Sure, fans of the genre have long been loyal (sometimes, arguably, to a fault), but recent years have found the country music fan base expanding and embracing crossover darlings Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Darius Rucker as well as country classics Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire and Kenny Chesney in pop culture.

While roles in mainstream movies and television undoubtedly help increase visibility (McGraw starred not only in 2010's Country Strong, but opposite Sandra Bullock's Oscar-winning turn in 2009's The Blind Side; McEntire long carried an eponymous sitcom and recently returned to the small screen in ABC's short-lived Malibu Country; Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere keep viewers riveted as feuding country stars on ABC's Nashville; and Blake Shelton has become a force to be reckoned with on NBC's singing competition series The Voice), CMT senior vp music events and talent John Hamlin also credits a changing musical landscape with the genre's growing popularity.

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"I think that the lines of popular music are just blurred," Hamlin tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The way radio is programmed now, there are less divided lines of genres and they're all sort of rubbing together. A good song, I'm happy to say, people are understanding and embracing that more than they ever have."

At the time of publication, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Swift, McGraw, Rucker, Shelton and The Voice alum (and Shelton mentee) Cassadee Pope could all be found in the top 30 of iTunes' singles chart -- with country darling-turned-pop party girl Miley Cyrus atop them all at the No. 1 spot.

Many of those artists will be on hand for Wednesday's CMT Music Awards to perform and (potentially) make an acceptance speech or two. Florida Georgia Line, who've broken out not only with their hit single "Cruise," but with the subsequent remix featuring Nelly, will hit the show's main stage for the first time alongside the rapper. ("A year ago, nobody knew who they were," notes Hamlin. "Now they're playing on the main stage of our show because I can't not put them on the main stage.") Opening the show this year is co-host Jason Aldean and rocker Lenny Kravitz, performing "American Woman," The Guess Who's 1970 hit made even more famous by Kravitz in 1999.

And while the show, also co-hosted by Kristen Bell, will be scripted and timed down to a T, Hamlin believes that the best watercooler moments will come from unexpected material.

"It's a double-edged sword," says Hamlin, who has produced the show for CMT for the past six years, of unscripted moments. "You want to produce it, craft it, make sure everybody knows what's coming and you never want to surprise someone, [but] the surprises that you aren't expecting are the ones that are magic."

In true CMT Music Awards fashion, the show will also kick off with a pretaped comedic piece highlighting country music's role in pop culture. Continuing with the show's promo campaign, featuring Bell as a therapist and Aldean as her patient, this year's digital short will focus on therapy. Former awards show hosts will be analyzed by Kelsey Grammer, reprising his role from Frasier; Lorraine Bracco as The Sopranos' Dr. Melfi; and TV doc Dr. Drew Pinsky. Watch a preview piece featuring the co-hosts below.

"The CMT Music Awards is rightfully more sensitive to the world of pop culture in reference to country music," says Hamlin. "The two have to work hand in hand."

The video short is just one play at creating those all-important buzzworthy TV moments. Among the most successful endeavors for CMT came in 2009 when Swift introduced her alter ego, T-Swizzle, to the world in a duet with T-Pain titled "Thug Story." The bit was one in a pair of gags, which also found Swift donning a pair of Star Trek Vulcan ears. "Who knew which one was going to catch fire, but we gave ourselves the chance to catch fire," says Hamlin.

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"If you make a television program, regardless of what it is, and no one's talking about it the next day -- you've failed," Hamlin says of the pressure to create those must-see moments. But, he adds: "A big rating will cure that feeling instantly."

Last year's CMT Music Awards garnered 2.9 million viewers and a 1.1 rating in the key 18-49 demo. By comparison, MTV's Video Music Awards, Viacom's pop counterpart, last September notched 6.1 million viewers. And while network television comparisons hold minimal relevance to cable, the black-tie Academy of Country Music Awards on CBS brought in 15.4 million viewers and a 4.3 rating this past April.

CMT's numbers are nothing to scoff at, and its worth noting that social media engagement was a huge part of last year's ceremony. Throughout the two-and-a-half hour broadcast, nearly every performer, song and award category trended at one point, with the CMT Awards as a whole claiming the No. 1 trending position worldwide just minutes into the show.

With a star-studded performance roster that includes Shelton, Underwood, Bryan, McEntire, Kacey Musgraves, Rucker, Hunter Hayes, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town and Swift, the pressure ultimately lies on the shoulders of hosts Bell and (first-timer) Aldean.

"The biggest challenge that any award show producer will tell you, if they're being honest, is finding the right host," admits Hamlin. "I think following James Franco and Anne Hathaway's turn at the Oscars, it makes it harder."

Hamlin confesses that even CMT has had its hosting missteps in the past 10 years. Without naming names, the producer says there have been a few unhappy "surprises" where "expectations and reality did not work hand in hand."

"You never ask someone to host who you don't think can do it," he says, acknowledging that all performers suffer an off-day once in a while.

"Kristen Bell is such a professional," he says of asking the House of Lies star to return. "She was just like a fish in water when it came to live television. She knows how to hit her marks and it was almost a no-brainer to have her back for a second year in a row."

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Acknowledging that last year's co-host Toby Keith is "not inclined to do this type of thing every year," Hamlin and his co-producers sought another country star at exactly the "right moment" in a white-hot career.

Enter Aldean: The country music bad boy made history earlier this year by selling out Boston's Fenway Stadium for not one, but two nights in a row, among several other stadium shows (and became tabloid fodder when his alleged infidelities and subsequent divorce filing made front-page news).

"I don't want Jason Aldean to be anybody but who he is," says Hamlin. "I'm not going to make him a comedian. That's like trying to put a square peg in a round hole … He's a badass, rocking country superstar, and that's who he's playing."

Michael Dempsey will executive produce the 2013 CMT Music Awards alongside director Joe DeMaio, while Hamlin and Margaret Comeaux serve as executive producers for CMT.

The 11th annual CMT Music Awards air live from Nashville's Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday at 8 p.m.

Twitter: @SophieSchillaci