Dan + Shay are savoring the anticipation leading up to the CMA Awards, where multiple nominations and an opportunity to perform await. "It's kind of one of those rites of passage," says Shay Mooney.

By Nancy Kruh
November 14, 2018 10:30 AM

As Dan + Shay get ready for the CMA Awards on Wednesday, the duet partners are savoring their nominations and all the special moments that lead up to the big night.

“Win or lose, seriously, it’s just an honor to be nominated,” Dan Smyers tells PEOPLE.

Come on. Seriously?

Smyers, 31, offers a wide grin. “We want to win, obviously!” he amends.

And with three nominations, the dynamic duo has never had a better chance than this week to take home their first-ever CMA Award. They’re up for vocal duo of the year, and their breakthrough single “Tequila” is a nominee for single of the year and music video of the year. Smyers also is nominated for song of the year for writing “Tequila” along with Nicolle Galyon and Jordan Reynolds.

Anna Webber

RELATED: Dan + Shay Feel Like They’ve ‘Finally Figured Out’ Their Sound with New Self-Titled Album

Smyers and partner Shay Mooney, 26, aren’t having any trouble filling their time as they await awards night. The days before have included taping “Mean Tweets” for Jimmy Kimmel Live! and a private concert at Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Cafe for a select group of fans. The latter event, sponsored by PEOPLE and Aflac, featured an acoustic performance of fan favorites, and label mate Morgan Evans stopped by to open the show. (It was the second listening lounge that Aflac co-sponsored leading up to the CMAs; RaeLynn performed before pediatric cancer patients and their families from the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.)

Evans might have gotten a bit more than he bargained for sharing the bill with his former tour mates, who delighted in teasing the Aussie. Mooney, it turns out, does a more-than-passable imitation of Evans’ Down Under accent.

Dan Smyers, Matthew Morales and Shay Mooney
John Russell/CMA

On Sunday night, Smyers and Mooney were busy with their initial awards-show rehearsal  — as well as the opportunity to make someone else’s CMA Awards week special, too. Backstage at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, the duo surprised a superfan, California college student Matthew Morales, with an impromptu meet-and-greet.

The CMA Foundation and U.S. Bank selected Morales to receive the trip for two to Nashville for his 12 years of participation in the Harmony Project, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit for children that provides free music instruction and orchestra opportunities. The initiative is a grant recipient of the CMA Foundation.

Morales, a freshman at Santa Ana College, brought along his girlfriend, Megan Coughlin, a freshman at San Diego State, who’s also a longtime Dan + Shay fan, and the couple got to watch the duo’s super-secret (and super-cool) soundcheck rehearsal. Afterward Coughlin told Morales, “I don’t think anything will ever top that” — but moments later, she was proven wrong when the couple got unexpected hugs from the two singers.

RELATED: ‘At a Loss for Words’: Dan + Shay’s Song ‘Speechless’ Inspired by Seeing Their Wives at the End of the Aisle

Once Smyers and Mooney learned that Morales plays the cello, they even suggested he might have a place in their show someday. Morales said he was more than happy to oblige.

“The only problem is that he looks way cooler than us,” Mooney playfully told Smyers as Morales protested. “So people will be like, ‘Dan and Shay? Oh my God, who’s that cello player?’”

Dan Smyers, Matthew Morales, Megan Coughlin and Shay Mooney
John Russell/CMA

Dan + Shay will be back at Bridgestone Arena Wednesday morning for a final dress rehearsal, and then they’ll hit the red carpet before the awards show.

As much as they’re excited about hearing their names called in the lists of nominees, both men say they are looking forward to their performance the most.

“It’s kind of one of those rites of passages,” Mooney says. “We’ve been to the awards a few times now, and it’s just gonna be a very cool thing to be able to actually perform one of our own songs.”

Both say the evening will definitely be a family affair. At last count, 18 of Mooney’s family from his home state of Arkansas will be in the audience, and Smyers has a contingent coming from his home in Pennsylvania.

“They’re all excited about it,” Smyers says. “They’re huge country fans. They’ll be screaming, probably making custom T-shirts and doing the whole thing.”

Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney
Anna Webber

His mother, he says, is especially excited at the chance of seeing her favorite country star.

Well, no surprise who that would be, right?

“She loves Michael Ray,” Smyers says with only the slightest hint of annoyance. “Fan of Michael Ray, always at a Michael Ray show. It’s funny. I think she likes Michael Ray more than me.”

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