If country’s “Happy Man,” Thomas Rhett, seems to be even happier than usual when he and Kelsea Ballerini host the primetime CMA Fest special on Sunday, maybe there’s a reason. He was holding onto a joyful secret during filming in early June: He knew he was going to be a dad for the third time.
He and wife, Lauren, finally made the announcement — including the news that they’re expecting a third daughter — more than six weeks later. Yep, Thomas Rhett tells PEOPLE, he was about to burst during CMA Fest week.
“It’s always really hard to keep secrets like that,” he says. “Naturally, you are excited and want to tell everyone, and Lauren and I have always been pretty open with our fans, so it’s nice for the news to finally be out there. And yes, work-wise it can be challenging. It was definitely a little tougher leaving for the stadium every night knowing I was not only leaving Lauren to fly solo with two kids, but also that she was pregnant and dealing with that, but she’s incredible.”
Filmed over four nights at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium, this year’s special marks the third time that Thomas Rhett and Ballerini have co-hosted together — and their chemistry is obvious.
It’s been earned, says Ballerini, through years of friendship. “We’ve toured together, written together, been insecure and celebrated together, had double dates, and have just become like brother and sister,” she tells PEOPLE. “It’s really a gift to have someone in the same industry as you that you can have the real conversations with and look up to. He’s a good one, and I’m super grateful for his friendship.”
This year, the addition of radio personality Bobby Bones as the show’s special guest host meant the two got one more pal to work with.
“We’re all real-life friends,” Ballerini, 25, says, “so it was nice to have some backstage time to catch up with each other.”
Still, Bones didn’t want to step on any toes. “Kelsea and TR are dear friends of mine. I pulled them both aside privately beforehand and was like ‘I’m not trying to hijack your show. If you are uncomfortable with this I won’t do [it],” the radio personality, 39, tells PEOPLE. “But they were so gracious — we had a good conversation.”
The reconnections, Thomas Rhett adds, also extended to the more than 20 acts who came to perform. Among them: Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris, Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert, Brothers Osborne and Luke Combs. Though the stadium concert series is among the most important stages in country music, backstage it was “honestly like a high school reunion,” he says.
“It’s truly just about a bunch of friends catching up and cheering each other on,” Thomas Rhett, 29, says. “I think you always play a little harder and louder when you know your friends are in the wings watching your show.”
Ballerini definitely counts herself among those stage-side watchers. “My favorite part about hosting is being able to still be a fan,” she says. “Sending off some of my favorite artists to stage and then being able to stand to the side, watch them sing songs I love and grew up on, fuels my inner fangirl and really gives me perspective on how lucky I am to be both.”
Still, hosting duties also meant the two missed out on a number of performances, and both are looking forward to watching the show at home like any other fan. Neither co-host has been privy to an advance viewing.
“I watch it every year,” says Ballerini, “and I can’t wait to relive it all from my couch with Morgan [Evans, her husband], my dog and some friends. And wine!”
Says Thomas Rhett: “I always enjoy watching the show back to see all the performances that I didn’t get to watch while I was running around hosting. I try not to watch my hosting bits back, but I am sure the family will make me!”
One thing Thomas Rhett is especially looking forward to is showing off the T-shirt he wore during all of his hosting appearances. It’s vintage merch from a 1990s tour that his dad, singer-songwriter Rhett Akins, headlined.
“I think there has been such a resurgence of appreciation for ’90s country music lately,” Thomas Rhett says, “and it’s pretty cool to rep your own dad in that way. We have him out on tour this summer with us and have been having so much fun getting so much quality time together, so when I found a box of his original shirts from the ’90s, I knew I had to wear it. I think he’ll definitely get a kick out of seeing his face on TV.”
As for Ballerini, she’ll get to relish watching herself perform “Miss Me More,” her hit that earned her a fifth No. 1 a week after CMA Fest.
“I knew we were hoping for No. 1 that week,” she says, “but I walked offstage with this peace that regardless of what happened, a stadium full of country music fans just screamed back every word. But yes, I am very grateful that I got to ring the bell and that song became a No. 1.”
CMA Fest: The Music Event of the Summer will air at 8 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC.
- With additional reporting by TRICIA DESPRES