CMA Country Christmas Celebrates the Holiday Season

Lady Antebellum
Lady Antebellum - Photo credit: John Russell/CMA
By Bob Doerschuk
Used by Permission © 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

For Robert Deaton, Executive Producer of The CMA Awards and CMA Country Christmas, there’s a world of difference between the two ABC-TV specials. It ultimately comes down to one word.

“Tension,” he specified. “There’s a lot of tension in the room for the Awards show because there’s so much riding on who’s going to win and it’s a live broadcast. The Christmas show is very different. It’s warm and open. People are there to have a good time. “

So they were on Saturday, Nov. 3, when Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena filled with early celebrants of the season. Most wore festive Christmas colors, including scarves and winter hats. And all broke into applause as Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, marking her third year as host of CMA Country Christmas, walked out to center stage.

Beaming and obviously in her late stage of pregnancy, Nettles playfully announced, “Now, like Santa Claus, I’m expected to deliver very soon. But tonight I’m going to try to break the record for costume changes by a woman in her third trimester!” (Nettles and husband, Justin Miller, welcomed son Magnus Hamilton Miller to the world on Thursday, Dec. 6.)

If such a record does exist, Nettles shattered it, beginning with the opening number. Dancers in vivid reds and greens swirled across the stage as she sang “A Naughty Christmas” and even joined in on a few steps. By the end of the evening, her other performances and interviews put to rest any doubts about whether she was up to the challenge.

“I was nervous from the moment last summer when Jennifer told me she was pregnant,” Deaton admitted. “But the very next thing she said was, ‘Can I still host the Christmas show?’ It was really important to her and we’re so lucky to have her.”

Yes, but was there a backup plan, just in case? “I never really had a Plan B,” Deaton said, with a laugh. “I thought about it and then just decided to roll the dice and hope she’s going to make it. If she didn’t, at the last minute, I’d figure something out.”

Luckily, Plan A worked. Unlike the two previous shows, this year’s taping benefited from having a full day after the CMA Awards broadcast to prepare. Several changes were made to the format: To keep the flow smooth, the program was shot in sequence. And in a new feature, the host sang a couple of duets, one with Lady Antebellum and another with R&B superstar John Legend.

“Having some different influences on the show does broaden our scope,” Deaton said. “John Legend, for example, has been to Nashville and written with John Rich and Faith Hill and Lady Antebellum, and Jennifer wanted to sing with him, so we took advantage of that opportunity. (Pop sensation) Colbie Caillat was invited because she has a Christmas album coming out. And when (mezzo-soprano) Katherine Jenkins has a new Christmas album and wanted to come to Nashville, I say we open our arms. This is the kind of show where we can do that.”

Several Country headliners made their CMA Country Christmas debuts this year too, including The Band Perry, Dierks Bentley and Lady Antebellum. Others made return visits. “Keith Urban gladly accepted our offer for him to come back to the Christmas show,” Deaton said. “We had Little Big Town come back because Christmas music and the holidays are all about singing together and caroling, and their harmonies are so good. And not only does Martina McBride have a Christmas album, but she’s also doing a Christmas tour, so we asked her to come back too.”

The “fireside chat” segment returns as well, though it too has been slightly tweaked. Once again, performers were welcomed into a backstage set complete with comfortable couch, throw pillows and a glowing fireplace — actually, a 40-inch plasma screen with a video of burning logs. To make it easier to weave their comments together, writer David Wild set up his questions to them along “fill in the blank” lines.

“We had a concept of ‘my favorite Christmas story’ and all the artists answered,” Deaton noted. “For example, Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum talked about her biggest memory being when she got a bike — I think it was a pink tricycle. Keith Urban talked about how his family in Australia would have its Christmas lunch on the beach. And The Band Perry talked about playing Aaron Neville’s Christmas record on Thanksgiving.”

But to Deaton, what carries over from one “CMA Country Christmas” to the next matters more than whatever changes get introduced. “We’re creating a tradition with this show,” he said. “It’s not just a Christmas special. It’s the ‘CMA Country Christmas’ special.”

“CMA Country Christmas” will air Thursday, Dec. 20, and repeat Saturday, Dec. 22, and Sunday, Dec. 23, on ABC.

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