While everyone thinks of the Country Music Association’s annual Awards as “country music’s biggest night,” the annual CMA Touring Awards – this year held at Marathon Music Works – might be “the night that makes country music happen.” Voted on by their peers, the honorees across 15 categories represent the best of live for a genre of music that connects the coasts.
With Lifetime Achievement honoree John Huie announced in advance, the bar was set incredibly high for this year’s nominees and winners. In a genre known for its friendly professionalism, CMA Award winning artists Dierks Bentley, Thomas Rhett and Ashley McBryde were in the audience as well as two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year Keith Urban, who presented Huie’s award. Iconic Colorado promoter/one-time manager Chuck Morris flew in to honor CAA Nashville’s founder.
MakeWake founder Chris Kappy won Manager of the Year. It was his first nomination, and he was clearly unprepared for the win. As he told Pollstar exclusively, “We had zero idea. When you’re nominated with the Clint Highams and John Peets, the biggest managers, just being in that company or serving on the CMA Board is an honor.
“I don’t even remember really talking, the adrenalin just kicked in. To me, I wake up every day excited that I get to work with my team, with my favorite artists – and help take their music to the fans! You know, most people come to music to run away from their lives; but we get to take music to the people in our lives.”
It was a night of two’s and four’s. Chesney’s team took four awards: Coach/Truck Driver John Stakler, Tour Photographer/Videographer Jill Trunnell, Front of House Engineer Robert Scovill and Tour Manager David Farmer. Combs also picked up four awards: Manager Kappy, Monitor Engineer Michael Zuehow, Production Manager Jerry Stone and Tour Video Director Tyler Hutcheson. Bentley’s team scored two – Lighting Director of the Year Chris Reade and Touring Musician of the Year Dan Hochhalter.
Farmer, Chesney’s best friend, longtime tour manager and President of Blue Chair Bay Spirits, was honored for the fourth time. He told Pollstar, “The reason we even get recognized is that the folks out on the road who deal with us recognize how we all conduct ourselves out there. To me, getting nominated is the same as winning, because everyone in that room is the best at what they do. They have to call a name, so it’s who’s in charge, but really it’s recognizing all the members of the team.”
The Ryman Auditorium, aka “the Mother Church of Country Music,” won Venue of the Year, while Brian O’Connell won Talent Buyer/Promoter of the Year. Clearly glad to have the troops gathered, he offered, “As one of Luke Combs’ people said, ‘To do an event honoring people who do events, it takes cajones,’ and it’s true. But to see everyone in the room, even more than the awards, it’s seeing the people who all make this happen being recognized. You have bus drivers pulling into venues at 5 a.m., the riggers and production people tearing down at midnight, agents, touring creatives, all the people who’re never seen, but make it happen.
“And as touring returned to what felt like full velocity, I think this year, the CMA Touring Awards meant even more to everyone who was there.”
Also, in the general categories, Morgan Wallen’s Austin Neal won his first Agent of the Year. “I was completely surprised,” Neal says. “To be nominated was a great honor, but I am humbled and thankful to my team, as well as the industry and even the fans who’ve played a role in what we’ve accomplished so early in my company’s existence.”
Other general category winners include Business Manager Stephanie Mundy Self of Farris, Self & Moore, LLC, and Publicist of the Year Ebie McFarland, for the fourth time since 2015.
McFarland, whose roster includes George Strait, Eric Church, Chesney and Miranda Lambert, was moved by the award: “I look at this recognition as a win for the incredible team I’ve built. Janet Buck, who’s so good, she was also nominated, Joseph Conner, Ashley Gaskin and Carrie McDonough are as much the reason for this award. We truly are a team, and there’s absolutely strength in numbers.
To understand the impact of these awards – designed to recognize the touring community that often builds career bonds even beyond radio exposure, streaming or traditional media – is to realize how great a factor concerts can be for a country artist.
To that end, members of the late Randy “Baja” Fletcher’s family were in attendance; Fletcher won the first Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.