Behind the Scenes of CMA Fest 2019’s Must-See Collaborations

2019 CMA Music Festival - Day 3
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

For 16 years, Robert Deaton has been the executive producer of ABC’s concert special highlighting the best of CMA Fest, the annual celebration of country music and its fans held each June in Nashville. But he doesn’t just capture memorable moments — he helps create them.

Here are the stories behind four of 2019’s must-see collaborations.

Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X, and Keith Urban

Back in April, when Billboard disqualified rapper Lil Nas X’s mega hit “Old Town Road” from topping its Hot Country Songs chart and then the remix featuring Cyrus took the earworm to another level, Deaton decided to book the duo. To make the performance different from what he imagined they’d do at June’s BET Awards, he arranged for Urban, who’d sung a banjo-driven cover of the song on Instagram, to join them.

“Keith loves music and loves new artists. Of course he wanted to do it,” Deaton says. “I have this expression, ‘stupid good.’ [That performance] was just stupid good.”

Carrie Underwood and Joan Jett

While working on last May’s Billboard Music Awards, Deaton was listening to a playlist that included “rock goddess” Jett when he got the idea to pair her with Underwood for an eight-minute medley of Jett’s greatest hits.

TV viewers will see it in its entirety, Deaton promises: “You can’t trim someone who’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!”

(ABC/Mark Levine)

Maren Morris and Brandi Carlile

Like everyone watching last February’s Grammys, Deaton thought Carlile’s performance stole the show. The camera’s cutaway to an awestruck Morris in the audience moved him to phone her manager the next day and pitch a CMA Fest duet. He was told the two had already cut a stirring track, “Common,” for Morris’ new album. Perfect.

Tim McGraw and Luke Combs

The fest’s schedule can be inspiration enough. McGraw and Combs were playing the same night, and Deaton knew they’d never shared the stage. Their duet of McGraw’s “Real Good Man” closes the special.

“If you want to see it,” he says, “you’ve got to stay with us till the end.”

CMA Fest, Sunday, August 4, 8/7c, ABC