CMA Awards Backstage: Kenny Chesney, Eric Church and More

Hunter Hayes, Little Big Town, Tim McGraw, Thompson Square Visit Reporters

Familiar faces like Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw dropped by the CMA Awards pressroom on Thursday night (Nov. 1) to talk about their latest win. Between the two of them, they’ve won 17 CMA Awards. But the backstage area also welcomed first-time winners like Eric Church, Hunter Hayes, Little Big Town and Thompson Square, who all appeared to be overwhelmed from their long-awaited moment in the spotlight.

Chesney and McGraw won their second collaborative CMA award on Thursday for their single, “Feel Like a Rock Star.” In 2007, they grabbed their first vocal event trophy for appearing on Tracy Lawrence‘s single, “Find Out Who Your Friends Are.”

Backstage at the CMA Awards, McGraw told reporters, “Kenny asked me to do this with him and we’ve been friends for over 20 years now. To still be here and kicking it, having a great time and still be able to cut records together, win awards together … we’d sit back in our apartments in the old days and could have never dreamed of all this.”

Chesney told reporters, “One of the first times I met Tim McGraw … [he] was by himself at a club in Printer’s Alley called Barb’s. And he was up there by himself with a guitar, singing a Keith Whitley song. He took a break, and we sat there and had a few beers and met each other, and our friendship kind of went from there. For years we talked about our dreams — and we still are actually talking about our dreams. Our friendship is very special. And if I’m giving an acceptance speech, it’s going to start with Tim McGraw for agreeing to do this song.”

After winning the album category for Chief, Church told reporters he never expected to win a CMA Award in his career.

“Especially with our journey,” he added. “Our path’s been a little bit different. I distinctly remember playing for about eight people in Amarillo, Texas, about four years ago, and to go from there to here is quite surreal. I think a lot of it I owe to the fans and we’ve — more than other people maybe — have built our career there with playing shows on the road. Playing 10, 12, 14 shows in a row, not really getting paid. The only way we could get our music out there was to keep playing shows and doing it that way.”

He continued, “We laid this foundation. I think when radio started to come on board and the industry started to come on board, it made it that much sweeter. It’s not something that I think about for me. I’ve never put a lot weight on awards, but I’ve wanted it for the people who believed in me from the very beginning and have been so passionate about what we do.”

Church was asked if the award prompted a rush of inspiration to begin his next project.

“Hell, no. I’m gonna wait longer,” he teased. “No, I think there are a lot of reasons to make records. The one thing I won’t do is I won’t make records for an economic reason. It won’t be because a label needs to make a quarterly number or we need to promote a tour. The next record will come when creatively it is the right time. That’s how this record happened. We kinda had nothing to lose when we made this record. We let creativity be the driver. Doing it that way, that’s hopefully how you end up with something like this. I’m not going to rush it, and when it’s time, it’ll be time.”

Hayes, the 21-year-old winner of the new artist award, confirmed that singing in front of his heroes was a big challenge.

“It was extremely intimidating because … I’ve bought their records. I’ve paid for their concerts. I’m a huge fan of all these people sitting in this room. I respect them so much. I just want them to like me,” he said with a giggle. “I want to do a good job! It is nerve-wracking, but it’s also my chance to say, ‘I respect you guys, and I’ve learned what you do as far as you live for music and you do your thing.’ And my goal is to do the same thing. Hopefully, I can do it right.”

Asked how he stayed calm during his acceptance speech, he replied, “I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea because as soon as they called my name I was like, ‘Oh, great. I am not ready for this!’ It caught me off guard, you know?”

He continued, “I’m a big fan of being prepared and ready for things and having my stuff together. And part of me was like, ‘Well, you’ve got to be ready for this,’ and the other part of me was like, ‘Pssh, don’t worry about it.’ And when I got up, I was like, ‘Well, I should have been prepared!’ he said with a laugh. “But I do have a ton of people to thank, and my biggest thing was I don’t want to forget a single person. I don’t want to forget a team partner or member because there are so many people who made this happen. I’m just the one who makes the noise. And I’m lucky, for sure.”

All four members of Little Big Town were still visibly shocked and shaken by their victories in the vocal group and single categories, the latter for their first No. 1 hit, “Pontoon.” They had been nominated in the vocal group category every year since 2006 but had never won that elusive trophy.

Asked how that upbeat song was a game-changer for them, Karen Fairchild replied, “If we all knew the recipe for what makes that kind of big smash hit, then we would do it over and over again. We wouldn’t have waited 13 years, you know? But I think it’s just timing and the fans. You pick the right song at the right time and you have the right production, the right performances and the right TV moments — and bam! All the stars start lining up. But the fans, they’ve gotta grab onto it, and they made this their song this summer. They’re the reason we are standing up here.”

Thompson Square’s Keifer and Shawna Thompson were still emotional after their duo win when they fielded questions from reporters.

“It’s really hard to put into words what that feels like,” Keifer said, when asked about their previous gig as bartenders about a block from the Bridgestone Arena, where the CMA Awards were held.

“Yeah, we bartended at a place called the Wheel down the street, and we worked until about a week before our radio tour started almost three years ago. … People would come over from the CMA Awards, and they were trying to get us to over-serve them,” he noted. “It’s so surreal, and we just talked about it and we cried about it just now, holding each other and just going, ‘Can you believe we were serving drinks down the street, singing for tips for eight years down here on Broadway, and then we just won this award?’ It’s one of the most wonderful nights of our lives, by far.”

Check out additional coverage from the CMA Awards.