Lights are being tweaked, camera shots are being blocked, and Toby Keith is running through his set list.
As you read this, that’s likely to be the frenetic scene at The Factory in Franklin, Tenn., just south of Nashville, as CMT prepares to broadcast All Access: Toby Keith, the latest in the channel’s live concert series. The show airs Thursday (Feb. 8) at 9 p.m. ET.
While past installments featuring artists such as Jo Dee Messina, Travis Tritt and Kenny Chesney look seamless on the air, a myriad of people and a lot of planning go into the show before the cameras go live.
To make it work, the production requires 90 crew members — from audio grips and gaffers (lighting electricians) to stagehands and camera operators — as well as a dozen CMT staffers, the artist and his band.
Preparation includes a day of set construction, a day of camera and audio set-up and two days of rehearsals. Seven cameras capture the action from every angle, as hundreds of audience members and millions of viewers enjoy the show. In short, it’s TV magic that takes a lot of creative energy and elbow grease to conjure.
The series kicked off with Faith Hill in 1997 as CMT Live, a moniker that later changed to All Access. Producer Jon Small, with Nashville-based production company Picture Vision, has been at the helm since the beginning. A former musician who played drums for Billy Joel, The Doobie Brothers and the Beach Boys, Small brings a unique perspective to the job.
“I know what the artist is thinking before they think it,” Small tells country.com. “I’ve been where they are.”
Small has used his combination of musical and TV experience to produce major shows such as Garth Live From Central Park and Garth Brooks: Ireland & Back. Although All Access is a more intimate setting, the show still offers fans the same experience provided by the big productions.
“The first thing you’re getting, hopefully, is that you’re seeing one of your favorite artists live,” Small says. “We want the viewer to see the artist up close and learn who that person is. I’m trying to get the audience to really feel at home with the artist, like he’s talking straight to them.”
Keith is a natural choice for the show, says CMT’s Ann Rotunno, co-executive producer. He was CMT’s Male Video Artist of the Year for 2000, and the clip for the acerbic hit “How Do You Like Me Now?!” was named Video of the Year.
“Toby’s been around a long time, and he’s got a great catalog of music,” Rotunno says. “We really think our female viewers will enjoy watching him.”
And so will the male viewers, Small believes. Though Keith does have a rugged sex appeal, he’s also a “man’s man,” a consideration that went into designing the stage set. For each All Access, the staging is created to match the personality of the performer.
“He’s an ex-football player, a rough-and-tumble kind of guy, but he’s also very soft and sweet,” Small says. “I wanted the set to have a combination — to be manly and strong and have vertical lines and trusses, but at the same time I wanted it be a little softer. That’s where the wood floor comes in, to soften it a bit.”
Keith is accustomed to working with the Picture Vision crew. One of the company’s directors, Los Angeles-based Michael Salomon, has directed most of Keith’s videos including “How Do You Like Me Now?!” and “Getcha Some.”
Even with all the planning that goes into it, All Access is still a live broadcast, so producers never know what to expect when the red light comes on. The show is timed to the second, which can make an exciting night for the director who calls the camera shots.
“You never know what’s really going to happen,” Small says. “But a good director will go on the fly and make it work. The song is not going to change, but the guy is playing the guitar solo, so it’s ‘one-two-three guitar solo,’ and you can think the guy is going to be center stage, but all of a sudden he ran back by the drummer. You have to be ready.”
The featured artist also has to be ready by getting a grip on his or her nerves. While stars are accustomed to performing live for large crowds, sometimes they aren’t as comfortable in front of a TV camera.
“Most of them are freaked out about it,” Small says. “But for most TV shows or awards shows, they only rehearse for 45 minutes, if that long. Then they’re off the stage. All Access is totally set up for the artist. They come in, do a sound check and a full rehearsal, so they leave feeling totally comfortable. When the time comes, they’re totally used to the room and they’re confident with the way it sounds, so that changes their whole attitude.”
When Keith takes the stage, he’ll be playing to a crowd of 700 that will cram shoulder-to-shoulder into a fairly small, studio-like space at The Factory, a room that appears much bigger on TV. The audience will include Keith’s fan club members, radio contest winners, CMT guests and hired “audience fillers” brought in by Picture Vision.
“I usually bring in about 100 people,” Small says. “They’re the people I sometimes place all around the stage because I never know what kind of audience I’m going to get. I’ve done Faith [shows], and the audience just sat there. We need energy, so we have to hire about 100 people to get everyone else going. All TV shows are done like that. It’s just a way to make it work.”
In addition to his All Access appearance, Keith will answer 20 questions submitted to country.com by fans. Read his answers when we post the interview on Friday (Feb. 9).