(CMT Offstage keeps a 24/7 watch on everything that's happening with country music artists behind the scenes and out of the spotlight.)
This was one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for years. As in, you wish so hard that you could just get this artist alone so you could ask all the really crucial questions on your mind, and then, voila: You get that opportunity. Every time I had the chance to interview a country star this year, just the two of us, I was worried it would turn out like Saturday Night Live's old skit about the Chris Farley Show. ("'Member that song you sang? That was awesome.") Thankfully, these 10 interviews did not turn out that way.
1. Tim McGraw: We were backstage at an amphitheater outside Chicago. We stood, because he had a broken foot and a cane, and said he was more comfortable standing. We talked about that broken foot, but more importantly, he opened up about how shy he is, how great he has it and the way he likes to make music.
2. Jason Aldean: Another one that took place backstage at a venue near Chicago. I'd interviewed Aldean before, going way back to the days when nobody had heard of him. But this chat was a standout because he talked about so much and talked for so long. So long, in fact, his manager had to come in and remind him he had a show to do.
3. Toby Keith: I'd never met Keith. Never had a phone interview with him. Never got 60 seconds with him on a red carpet. So in my mind, we had a lot of catching up to do. But we only had a few minutes, in the basement of a Chicago liquor store, and he is a man of few words. He was there to promote his Wild Shot Mezcal, but I got him to talk about a little bit more than just how he takes his reposado.
4. Sara Evans: Sometimes the setting of an interview is absolutely essential to its success. You want the artist to be comfortable. So when I had the opportunity to talk with Evans alone in her room at the Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago, I jumped at the chance. It's one of those interviews that when I listen back to the recording, I can't believe how honest and open she was. Maybe she's always like that, but I think the cozy hotel room helped.
5. Sunny Sweeney: When Sweeney was in Chicago to perform at Joe's Bar, we caught up in the tiny upstairs green room. We definitely talked about her music because this was right when "From a Table Away" was starting to climb up into the Top 10. But, we talked beauty tips, too. Like how her super blond hair is streaked with black, and she showed me all seven of her tattoos.
6. Martina McBride: We were somewhere west of Cleveland, I think. And we were in a lounge car with floor-to-ceiling windows and a spectacular view aboard her Amtrak train to promote her Eleven album. That's what it was. But here's what it actually felt like: two girlfriends sitting at the kitchen table talking about their kids, their working-mom realities, their futures and their love of good country music. All we were missing was a bottle of wine.
7. Sugarland: Kristian Bush was kind enough to let us have this talk in his makeshift dressing room backstage at a Chicago venue. So the three of us sat on the couch and talked first about all of Bush's fedoras lined up on the road cases. Then we moved on to talk about our first loves, our last downloads and our shared love of the 1988 soundtrack for She's Having a Baby. Bush, for those of you who don't know, is a walking music encyclopedia.
8. Dierks Bentley: I was watching Bentley's ACM rehearsal at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and once he was done, he came out to the seats in the arena to sit and talk with me. He was, however, breathless. He'd been singing his "Am I the Only One" while he ran up the steps in the first tier of seats, two at a time. So we chatted about that move and how he likes to raise a little hell after every show.
9. Little Big Town: This is how you know when a country group has gone from being a band to being your friends: Jimi Westbrook offered to help me get my bad tattoo from Las Vegas properly fixed. He apparently has a guy. We were backstage before one of their Chicago shows, and after we chatted about their music and their tight knit way of life, the talk turned to ink. He hasn't taken me to his guy yet, but if I ever get the nerve to go under the needle again, Westbrook will be the one I call.
10. Trace Adkins: I think we were in a closet of some sort. Adkins and I talked in a tiny room off the side of the stage right after his October show at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. Cramped quarters aside, I could've listened to him all night. He and I agreed that once you have kids, all the pop music starts to sound nasty. (He admitted he doesn't want his kids listening to his music either, but that that's different because, as he said, "I don't make music for kids.")