The CMA Awards show Wednesday night is sure to hold more than a few surprises, but for co-hosts Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker, the biggest shocker has already come and gone. Both say they were completely surprised to be invited to helm the annual broadcast.
"I was very honored to get asked back," says McEntire, who co-hosted the "tribute to women" show last year, along with Carrie Underwood and Dolly Parton, but is probably best known for hosting the ACM awards show a record 16 times.
When she was asked this time around, the 65-year-old country queen says, her first thought — after saying yes, of course — was about a co-host. "I said, 'I'm not going to do it by myself,'" she recalls to PEOPLE.
That's when she learned that Rucker was also being invited. "And I said, 'Oh my gosh, that would be so much fun.' He's loved by everybody in the country music business and pop world. He's a blast to get to work with."
For Rucker, the invitation was even more of a bolt out of the blue. "My manager called me up and said, 'How'd you like to host the CMAs with Reba?'" the 54-year-old pop-turned-country artist recalls to PEOPLE. "And it just blew my mind. He doesn't call without something important, and when he asked that, I was blown away."
Rucker, in turn, was thrilled to learn he'd be working with McEntire. "We've known each other for years," he says. "We're friends. She's so easy to get along with and easy to talk to, and she's a superstar. You can ask her anything, and she'll give you her advice. Reba's real."
Both artists have since settled into their high-profile roles with days of rehearsals, including preparation for a duet of Elvis Presley's 1969 hit "In the Ghetto," a tribute to its songwriter Mac Davis, who died in September.
Rucker also will join Lady A to sing his current single, "Beers and Sunshine," and McEntire will collaborate with Thomas Rhett, Hillary Scott and Chris Tomlin on their hit, "Be a Light." It will be the first time the four will perform together (all recorded their tracks separately), and in fact, the awards show will mark the first meeting of McEntire and Tomlin.
The uplifting single reached No. 1 in September, a feat that means McEntire has topped the charts in every decade spanning back to the 1980s. The song also was up for CMA musical event of the year (which Carly Pearce and Lee Brice won Wednesday morning for their duet, "I Hope You're Happy Now"). McEntire's nomination was her 51st; so far, she's won six.
But McEntire says she's prouder of the single for another reason: "It's a song that we really needed during this time in our country's history, the pandemic, the quarantine. We needed something positive. That's what I like about Darius' song 'Beers and Sunshine' and 'Be a Light.' It's up-tempo, positive songs that people can have fun with and be inspired by. That's what we need more of right now."
Rucker has his own personal reasons for looking forward to the show: his friend Charley Pride, a trailblazer for other Black country artists, is set to receive the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.
"Charley is one of the all-time greats, and he's a guy who's done it with dignity and pride and love — in the way it should be done," Rucker says. "I'm proud that I'm going to be there to see it, and I hope our community looks at it and sees it for the great thing that is: somebody that was told, 'You can't do this,' and then told everybody, 'Yeah, I can.' And he went and didn't just do it; he did it as a superstar, a pioneer. Everything he did, he was the first person to do it. Charley's the one who opened that door for all of us. And now we all owe him a thank you —not just the Black country musicians, but country music."
Besides the first-time pairing of the two hosts, the awards night is destined to be set apart from previous shows because of the ongoing pandemic. It is among the only awards events since the outbreak to feature an audience, albeit limited to performers, presenters, nominees and their guests.
Among those guests, McEntire confirms, will be her new boyfriend, actor Rex Linn. "We're both excited that he's going to be there with me," she says.
Both co-hosts express confidence in the precautions being taken by the show's producers to ensure safety and health. Evidence of those precautions became apparent Sunday night when Lee Brice, who was scheduled to perform with Carly Pearce, bowed out because he'd tested positive for COVID-19. Lady A's Charles Kelley has since been enlisted to sing the "I Hope You're Happy Now" duet. Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard, a nominee for vocal duo of the year, also won't be attending; he announced on Monday that he, too, has tested positive.
With a limited audience, the show will be held in Nashville's Music City Center, significantly smaller than the usual location, Bridgestone Arena, just across the street.
"It's going to be different," McEntire attests. "We're going to have round tables where the nominees and performers will be sitting. Nobody's going to take any shortcuts on keeping everybody as safe as possible."
Says Rucker: "I like the idea of trying to do it in a way where people can come accept their awards, and people can play live. They can actually be on stage and play and not be breaking any social-distancing rules. I'm really proud and excited to be a part of it."
Check out PEOPLE's full CMA Awards coverage to get the latest news on country music's biggest night.
Though the audience will be made up almost exclusively of their colleagues, both McEntire and Rucker are almost giddy about the opportunity to play in front of a crowd.
"We haven't gotten to perform much since March the first," McEntire laments. "That was our one and only concert of the year."
Considering his own months off the road, Rucker says having the opportunity to perform before an audience "isn't even the cherry on top. That's like the rare gold sprinkle."
For more from Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now. Watch the 54th annual Country Music Association Awards live from Nashville at 8 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. CT on ABC.
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