Bobby Bones on Hosting CMA Fest and Filling in for Ryan Seacrest on 'American Idol'

Scott Fishman
Q&A ABC/Eric McCandless

The summer may be nearing the finish line, but that doesn’t mean you can’t rock out one more time from the comfort of your living room, courtesy of the CMA Fest on ABC.

Some of the biggest names in country music and beyond take the stage to perform more than 30 of today’s hottest chart-toppers, filmed in June as part of the 48th Annual CMA Fest. 

Among those on the star-studded lineup are hosts for the 16th primetime special Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini, joined this year by Bobby Bones. The radio and television personality known for having his pulse on the Nashville scene has watched the event only get bigger.

Here the Dancing with the Stars champ and American Idol in-house mentor gives us a glimpse into what we can expect from ABC’s music event of the season. 

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How would you describe the energy of CMA Fest compared to other festivals you’ve attended? 

Bobby Bones: You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people moving downtown. It’s hot. I am not going to lie, it’s hot. But people wouldn’t do it if they didn’t love it. There is a real camaraderie with people who are grinding it out together for the love of the music. That’s what country music is about anyway. It’s people who absolutely love the format more so than a particular song. People go to CMA Fest come back every year for the most part. They spend their vacations here. There is a spirit of, “We’re in this together.” 

When you look at this jam-packed lineup, there are so many great performances and collaborations. What are some of your favorites? 

A few things that stood out to me as I was watching the show — because I was hosting and right at the side of the stage. The Luke Combs and Tim McGraw one is real special. A lot of these guys are my friends, so the Carrie Underwood and Joan Jett one was awesome because they went out and rocked a bunch of Joan Jett hits. And Brothers Osborne with Brooks & Dunn was pretty fantastic too. You’re going to get everything from Kelsea and The Chainsmokers. I think what a lot of people were looking forward to see what happened when Lil Nas X performed with Billy Ray Cyrus and Keith Urban.

Joan Jett and Carrie Underwood at CMA Fest (ABC/Mark Levine)

I think regardless, where you fall in the age spectrum or if you’re a die-hard fan or someone sampling it, I think you’ll find something you really love because of the mixture of artists they’ve brought in to do these duets. 

There is a sense that country music has never been more diverse. How would you describe the landscape today? 

I think it’s pretty wide if you’re talking about a landscape because you can have your Southern rock, which is where Brothers Osborne fits into this. The show has some pop elements too [with] Kelsea and The Chainsmokers. There is also a strong female presence on the show, which is very important. Country music in general I don't think as been any more wider for someone to come in and take a part of country music they love. Or you can be like me and love all of it. Even the country hip-hop with Lil Nas X, who has had the biggest song maybe in the last 10 years, it seems. 

(Photo: Zack Massey)

You’ve had the chance to take the stage on tour with the Raging Idiots, and you brought American Idol alums Emma Klein and Walker Burroughs on the road with you. What has that experience been like? 

Raging Idiots is a comedy show — I’m a stand-up comedian before I’m a musician. I was able to go to Idol and see some of the talent, and I think about how I can still cultivate their talent. I do stand-up on the show.. and then we did music with comedy songs using American Idol. Whenever someone doesn’t win, but they are still so talented, I like to help out as much as I can not only by bringing them out on the road. I’m here to help them with their publishing career, their artist career, and doing things on my show as well. 

Your profile has grown so much, and you’ve gained new fans beyond your radio show. How has life changed for you now that people recognize you more? 

I think there is definitely a different demographic that recognizes me now. Pretty much anywhere from L.A. to New York, a lot of people watch American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. It has been a fun thing for me to be able to do these shows I love. I don’t do it for the notoriety, but to get stopped to [by people who] tell me what I’m doing is pretty cool. I get a lot more, “Aren’t you that guy from…” Sometimes they can’t remember, but I’ll be like, “Dancing with the Stars?” No. “American Idol?” No. “How about the one episode of Very Cavallari where I dated that girl?” That’s the one! It’s always something, but it’s a good thing to have. 

ABC/Kelsey McNeal

You’ve been so proud of your Dancing with the Stars win. Why was that moment so important for you and why you’ve carried that on since? 

My goal in general is to show people you can do whatever you put your mind to. If it’s physically attainable, you can attain it. I don’t think you can be 4-foot-1 and dunk, but I believe you can go buy a trampoline and be 4-foot-1 and dunk. One of the things I tell my listeners all the time is if you can’t do it, you can figure out a way to do it. I wasn’t supposed to win that show. I was last when they put out those Vegas odds. 

For me, I go, “OK, here is an example of us trying to do this together.” My people and listeners of my show tried to prove the impossible was possible. We kind of did. And I love it, not because I won a dance competition, but because I was able to take my people on a journey and prove everybody can be against you, but that doesn’t actually determine the outcome. 

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Do you feel like you can do another reality show now? 

I feel like I can do anything. I just finished Running Wild with Bear Grylls. We went to a part of the world and did some nutty stuff. I’ll tell you, once you’ve danced in front of eight million people, eating some really weird things and diving off a cliff, it’s scary, but you know you’ll be alright on the other side. It has put me in a positive mindset. 

Another big moment you had recently was filling in for Ryan Seacrest as host on one episode of American Idol. What did you take from that experience? 

It was my second season back on Idol and serving as in-house mentor. We’re probably about seven, eight minutes before the show is starting in a theater in Los Angeles. It’s duets week, a lot of celebrities there. They told me Ryan was sick for the first time in the show’s history and would not be able to go on. They said, “We need to have you on the show and host in the next 10 minutes.” For me, it more so wasn’t, 'Am I ready to host a television show?' I feel like I have the skillset and have been training to do that for a long time. It was, 'Alright, show me where to walk on the stage.I don’t want to walk into anybody.' Luckily, I didn’t have time to freak out because had they done that, I probably would have. There was no thought of that and I just did it. I did a fine job. I would say fine to pretty good. 

ABC/Eric McCandless

Ryan said I did fantastic and hit me up. I see him everywhere, and we talk all the time. He sent me a pair of shoes thanking me for filling in his shoes. By the way, really expensive shoes! Then we went about our business. I’m a professional. He’s a professional. He’s the best I’ve seen do what he does, as far as being a great host. I don’t think it was a passing of the torch on Idol. That will always be his show, but I think for a lot of the executives watching finally saw, “Hey, this guy can do this no problem.” We’re all given these shots, and it’s how we are able to capitalize. I said I wasn’t talking about shows with ABC right now somewhat based on that, I’d be lying. There is definitely some talking. 

And this special guest-hosting came up CMA Fest, as well. What was it like working with veterans of the show, Kelsea and Thomas? 

It’s always fun when you can work with your friends. With TR and Kelsea, that’s exactly what it was. In Nashville, you kind of all know each other. Kelsea's first shows as an artist and musician were opening for me, I took her on the road. We've had a close relationship for a long time. TR and I have grown super close over the years — he was in my house two days ago! I pulled them both aside and said, "I’m not trying to jump into your spot here."  First and foremost, they are friends of mine, and that’s easier coming into an environment that maybe could be uncomfortable as the new guy. It wasn’t at all. 

Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini (ABC/Ed Herrera)

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