Nashville native Lance Smith joined CMT as its first VJ in 2001, and has now hosted more than 400 episodes of CMT Top 20 Countdown. We phoned Smith last Friday, the morning after he taped his final Countdown — which premieres today at 11: 30 a.m. ET and includes multiple trips down memory lane and a blooper reel — to chat about his favorite moments, the interviews he wishes he could have back, the one clip we never got to see, and what’s next (a sitcom with Reba?).

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you feeling?

LANCE SMITH: You’ll have to excuse my voice this morning. I’m a little hung over from last night.

Nice. Let’s start there. How did you celebrate your last show?

I was just so overwhelmed by everyone’s support. It took me an hour to write my goodbye, two minutes of copy, because it was just really tough. Everyone at CMT came in the studio and started applauding and cheering, and I really wish they hadn’t done that right before I did it.

Did you cry?

Hell yeah, I cried. I cried writing it the night before. I cried shooting it. I cried afterwards. And then we all went across the street to a bar. I think we were home by midnight, but I packed in a lot of adult beverage between my time off work and midnight.

Looking back, who’s been your favorite interview?

I don’t have one single favorite interview, but there’s always Blake Shelton. Any time I got a chance to talk to him, the audience seemed to love it and I loved it, too. We cut up a lot, and it’s very dry and tongue-and-cheek, and a lot of times, I would get emails from people thinking that he’s either being too mean to me or that I’m being too mean to him and that one of us needs to back off — which just let us know we were doin’ it right.

Is there any interview you wish you could do over?

Oh. [Laughs] The thing about it is, I grew up in Nashville. Yeah, I grew up around country music, but acting was what I was focused on. So when I got the gig, I was thrilled ’cause it was like, “Cool, I’m on the channel I grew up watchin’,” and then I’m like, “I have to interview people?” So I had to learn how to interview and to realize this needs to be more of a conversation. So pretty much the first four years of my time at CMT, I wish I could do all those interviews again. [Laughs] But god bless the country stars for hangin’ in there with me while I learned how to do my job at their expense. I can’t tell you how many times I interviewed Martina McBride just shaking in my boots at this little 5’2″ woman with icy blue eyes.

How did the show change over the eight years?

I had a bunch of different producers, I think five. Every producer who would come along would have a new thing, a new angle. One of them really liked to put me in costumes. So if you watch the show, the progression, all the sudden there’s this period of time that I would wear a bee outfit, a prison outfit, you name it.

And what was your favorite costume?

One that was never seen. It was a tape sent to a buyer in Las Vegas. I was helping out our ad sales department, and [the buyer] was a big fan of the show and of myself, so I was saying thank you on behalf of the network, and I’m wearing a showgirl outfit. Thank god you never saw that one. But of the ones that made the air, there’s one of my all-time favorite episodes. Horton Hears a Who! was coming out, and we partnered with the studio. I write children’s poetry, so Dr. Seuss is a hero of mine. This was a dream. We wrote the entire show in Seussian style, every bit of language rhymed. I got to wear all these outfits that we borrowed from the children’s theater in town as I read copy on the show. Any of those costumes from that episode.

What’s next for you?

In January, my wife and I are packin’ up the truck and movin’ out West. Like the Beverly Hillbillies, I’m gonna have my grandmother on top of the car with a rocking chair, and we’re gonna point at all the concrete ponds everybody has. I’m not leaving CMT because I’m angry or mad, it’s just time. I got into this business as an actor, and I never really got the opportunity to follow through with that because at 22, I landed my CMT gig. My contract was up, and we were talkin’ about the future, and they really wanted me to stay but to do a lot of what I’ve been doing. It was very amicable. I mean, I’ll probably end up hosting another show on CMT in the future. I could totally see that. But, I was like, “Guys, I need to step out and see what I can do.” It’s a tough decision in one aspect, and then it’s the easiest decision in the world in another. I’m really excited about showing the entertainment industry what else I have to offer as a talent. I have a good fan base, I’ve been doing it so long that there’s a lot of people out there who know who I am, but, when it comes to the rest of the business, I really flew under the radar for so long because I’m in Nashville. I’m going to L.A. kinda as an unknown, but with a helluva resumé.

And you’re doing an indie film in Nashville now?

A friend of mine wrote this kind of Indiana Jones-esque script, and he wanted me to be his lead character. He’s been throwing me around on the green screen for weeks. He doesn’t want me to say too much about it, but I can say that it’s a family action-adventure movie, and I fight 30-foot robots.

Who’s your dream costar?

I want to work with Vince Vaughn, but I want to work with Vince Vaughn in a dramatic role. In my job, I’ve interviewed him a few times. It’s not like we’re BFFs or anything, but he knows who I am. [Laughs] Can you make that happen?

I’ll put it out into the universe, and we will see.

I’ve been hearing that Reba McEntire wants to do a sitcom again. I was a big fan of Reba — I thought they were crazy to cancel it. That would be something that I’d be thrilled to be a part of. It’d kinda be the same audience I’ve been in front of for so long.

Anything else you’d like to add?

My time at CMT I will cherish forever. I say this on the show as I’m saying goodbye: I grew up in Nashville around this music and watching CMT. Then to be on the network for so long and to do so many different shows, and so many episodes of them, and to be on the red carpet interviewing these artists, and to be around before some of them made it and to watch them become superstars — that meant the world to me. I just want to say thank you to the fans, in any outlet that I can get, that put up with me and enjoyed what I was doing. I often said that when I started, my goal was for the audience to either like me or ignore me. I didn’t want to put anybody off. I didn’t want to be that guy, the guy that when you flip channels sittin’ on your couch, you tell your friend, “Ugh, I hate this guy.” But now, after so many years, I think I’m ready to hit that spotlight and if you hate me, that’s fine, as long as I’m doin’ the job. [Laughs] Hopefully more people like me.

I was gonna say, there’s my headline: “Lance Smith — Ready to be Hated.”

I can be hated now, just pay me. No. [Laughs] That’s just to say I’m not afraid anymore, and that’s because of what I gained through all my years at CMT. I’m excited to see what the future holds. So is my wife, ’cause we have a mortgage.

Photo credit: Jeremy Cowart