CMT has been keeping under wraps President Barack Obama’s appearance on tonight’s (5/12) “Music Builds: CMT Disaster Relief Concert” special to aid tornado and flood victims. But the country music network’s president Brian Philips tells us, “The President was gracious and eloquent and impassioned in his plea for help for this region. He immediately recognized he needed to be on this show. That gave us a morale boost.”
The special, from Nashville, is so jam-packed with stars that by Tuesday, Philips says, the executive producer was texting him to say “‘Please don’t promise anybody else they can be on the show. We are over-booked.”
That outpouring of concern and support is a far cry from last month, when tornadoes killed some 300 people in six states including hardest-hit Alabama, where entire towns were leveled. “People throughout this vast swath of America were witnessing devastation beyond their imaginations, yet they weren’t getting help. They were watching news channels and unbelievably not seeing what they expected to see about their home towns. They weren’t sensing that they were the topic of news coverage. Unfortunately, for the most part, they weren’t,” Philips recounts.
Emails poured in to CMT asking for help, with “viewers coming to the logical conclusion, ‘Let’s get someone at CMT to get the cameras on this.’ It’s a first and it is a fact,” he says. “It was an eye-opener.”
Philips says that there has been a lot of conversation amongst those involved in “Music Builds” about these unique circumstances, about “how it felt seeing the royal wedding being played for the fifth time, knowing the extent of the damage and the lost lives just to the south of us. Nature pays no attention to the news cycle,” he adds. “Nature doesn’t care that there’s a royal wedding, or that the U.S. has mounted a spectacular surgical strike and taken out Bin Laden.”
Hank Williams, Jr., was among the many who tuned in to the news, “took a look at the very minimal TV coverage coming in from Alabama, and was dumbstruck,” says Philips. The singer “got really fired up about this, and has been one of the busiest people, getting it going. He’s an amazing character, a great addition to anything CMT does, he brings such color and enthusiasm and credibility, as well as brilliant music.”
Country music elite the likes of Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Sara Evans, Alan Jackson, Alabama and Ronnie Dunn have been quick to commit to the special. “It’s just a reflexive reaction with our stars to help at times like this. It’s the easiest call you’ll ever make,” says Philips. “They’ve all had to change around their schedules. It’s the start of tour season, busy for everyone.”
Show forces are getting help from Hollywood and New York as well, he says. “I think you’ll be very surprised at the level of people who gave us special footage for this affair.”
He acknowledges, “Certainly CMT can’t take full credit for it. We’re part of the MTV Networks Music Group — that’s done the Katrina benefits, Hope for Haiti. And we did the Jimmy Buffet Gulf Shores concert. People often look to us to bring artists together and stage these sort of events in a timely manner.” Crews have been shooting B-roll packages this week in tornado and flood-ravaged areas.
With The CMT Music Awards coming up June 8, Philips says there is some overlap with production and crew people “who are doing both things. They’ll have to be taken out in straight jackets before this is over. They’re getting no sleep,” he says. Still, “There’s nothing like the energy of things like this when they’re produced in the heat of the moment. You’re running on adrenaline, and it’s magic when people say, ‘Guess who’s coming?’ ‘Guess who’s given us a great piece?’ and you realize you can make a difference and use the channel for good.”
Proceeds from the event are going to the American Red Cross.