Don Evans and DeAnn Stephens were backstage at the CMA Awards, surrounded by country music stars and legends such as Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley and Garth Brooks, and Stephens noticed something.
“She looks around, and she had the best line,” Evans said. “She says, ‘I just realized something. We are the smallest people here.’”
In a burst of laughter, Stephens says, “We are!”
It even said so on the award they were there to collect: small-market personalities of the year, one of nine radio awards handed out each year at the CMAs.
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But what struck the duo, who are on the air as “Officer Don & DeAnn” 6 to 10 a.m. weekdays on WBUL-98.1, is that in the midst of country music glitterati, they didn’t feel small.
“Look, we can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t write,” Evans said, putting his boots up on the WBUL studio console after Wednesday morning’s show. “So you wonder how the artists really feel about you getting a CMA Award and not being in their clique. I thought, this is a throwaway for them; throw us a bone.
Surprisingly, some artists don’t look at it that way.
“When you have Garth Brooks show up and grab the award and say, ‘Guys, this is really a big deal. They can never take this away from you, no matter what.’ And I made the comment, ‘Oh, well we can’t, ...’ and he said, ‘No. You’re here for a reason, and what you do for the industry is just as important as what we do. The writers are on the front end, and we’re in the middle, and you guys have to bring it on.’ And he meant it.”
Reassured by no less than Garth, Evans and Stephens decidedthey could enjoy their time getting the red carpet treatment at one of Nashville’s biggest nights.
The enjoyment extended into this past week, when they returned from Music City and resumed the routine of rising at 4:30 a.m. each day to get on the air playing country hits and dispensing chatter that falls somewhere between sibling and spousal.
It has been their routine since 2010, when Evans was named Stephens’ permanent co-host after a string of on-air partners who departed for one reason or another.
“It’s not a show, to us,” Stephens says. “We come in, and we do what we do every day. Most people think we’re married, and we’re not. But we fight like a married couple. We fight like siblings. But we love like siblings, too. I couldn’t ask for a better partner.”
Evans, who has been well known for decades for his traffic reports, retired from his day job as a Lexington police officer to take the chair opposite Stephens.
“It was terrifying,” said Evans, whose first radio experience was as a teenager in Webster, situated between Louisville and Owensboro. “Chasing bad guys was my comfort zone. Being on the radio as the person with a spotlight on him was not. Without her to guide me, I never would have done it.”
Not that he made a good first impression.
Evans showed up his first day to co-host with Stephens on the country station known as The Bull in a cowboy hat, chaps and a big belt buckle.
“I was madder than hell, because I thought he was making fun of being part of country music,” said Stephens, who came to the gig after years as a reporter for WKYT-TV. “I was like, ‘This is a job,’ and I was my proper TV reporter self back then. But not anymore.”
One thing neither of them has gotten used to is the early start time.
“There’s no way to put a positive spin on getting up at 4:30 in the morning,” Evans said.
He points to a blank dry-erase board and says station management originally wanted them to plan out shows, but “That’s not us.
“We just pretty much have to be ourselves. What we do happens between the songs, and then carries over to the next break. The question is often, ‘What are we going to do next?’ and half the time, the answer is, ‘I don’t know,’” and Stephens quickly adds, “Just hang on.”
Such a plan — if you can call it that — has worked for the duo.
Since teaming up, Stephens and Evans had been nominated for the small-market CMA twice previously, and they admit that the third time was stressing them out.
Waiting for Keith to call
“They say being nominated is an honor, but after a couple times, it’s not enough,” Evans says.
They were told a window of time to expect notification an on-air phone call.
“Our window was our show,” Evans said, “and we get to 9:45, and there’s no call. I’m blaming her again; she’s blaming me.”
Then the phone rang.
“He said, ‘Hey guys, it’s Keith,’” Stephens said, recalling the call from country star Keith Urban. “When he called, I freaked out. I was like, ‘Answer the phone!’ because it doesn’t ring; it just lights up. I was so excited. It’s hard to believe.”
A very Kentucky CMAs
What made the awards even sweeter was how much overt and subtle Kentucky influence there was in this year’s show.
There was Johnson County’s Chris Stapleton, who has quickly become a CMAs regular; a tribute to the late Troy Gentry featuring Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts and a surprise appearance from Gentry’s on-stage partner, Eddie Montgomery, and their honor. Then there were less-heralded things: Virgie native and songwriter Josh Osborne, who co-wrote Sam Hunt’s monster hit “Body Like a Back Road,” and other Kentucky-connected writers.
“There was always a tie to Kentucky in everything, it seemed like,” Stephens said. “How could you be a part of that, being a Kentuckian, and not be proud?”
Evans said, “They were either hunting in Kentucky, drinking Kentucky bourbon or singing Kentucky songs written by Kentucky writers. Now you’ve got a couple of Kentucky disc jockeys playing their music, and having the honor of being on that stage.”
Rich Copley: @copiousnotes