ACM Awards Chief Previews Show: More Locations, More Live Audiences, ‘More Fun,’ Same Strict COVID Protocols

Chris Willman
·12-min read

Sunday night brings the 56th annual Academy of Country Music Awards to CBS, but in a way, it almost feels like the 55th and a half. That’s because it’s only been seven months since the last ACM Awards, which were held in September 2020, delayed five months from their usual April perch. Moreover, last fall’s show was enthusiastically received enough that a number of new wrinkles have been held over, like bringing back Keith Urban in a host role, keeping the show in Nashville instead of the usual Las Vegas location, and using the Opry House, Ryman Auditorium and Bluebird Cafe as primary locations.

“There was a little bit of a deja vu feeling as I was pulling into Opryland the other day, and it did feel very funny, like, ‘Gosh, I was just here,'” concedes Academy of Country Music CEO Damon Whiteside with a laugh.

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“At the same time, though,” he’s quick to add, “it does feel like it’s been a little while since September, just because the world has changed so much in that time. And this show, too, is going to be, I think, quite different from the one in September. Once we decided that we were going to come back to Nashville for a second year, we very deliberately talked about how do we make it feel different and not just do a repeat of the September show. People in general out there, our fans, are in a different head space now than they were in the fall. People are getting vaccinated and live music’s going to be coming back this summer. So we really decided that this show was going to be much more fun, bright, positive and upbeat, with more fun songs and moments than what September had. People want to sing along to their favorite artists and they really want comfort food, and I think that’s what we’re going to deliver.”

And, not incidentally, more people, inside the auditoriums or hovering just out of sight. Last fall’s show proceeded without any semblance of a live audience at any of the locales; at the Opry House, the prime location, LED lighting spread across the seats created a warm glow that the absence of bodies couldn’t. And nominees will be in sight in the house as their categories come up, too. But there won’t be commingling. The vaccinated audiences of invited medical workers will be socially distanced in the sizable balconies of both the Ryman and Opry House. On the floor of the latter, nominees will be rotated in and out as their shots at winning arrive, And never the twain shall meet.

So, think: a live crowd of frontline workers, a la the Golden Globes, but moved up to the mezzanine; and a limited number of masked nominees, a la the Grammys, except cycled through even more quickly than the Recording Academy rushed anybody in or out.

“The ACM and ACM Lifting Lives (the org’s charitable arm) have a longtime partnership with Vanderbilt,” Whiteside says, “and so we worked with them early on to determine a path to have an audience. They consulted us on it, but we also wanted to just thank them for all they’ve done for us through the pandemic, so the audiences will consist of fully vaccinated Vanderbilt medical staff. Being that they’re fully vaccinated, there isn’t a risk to any crew or anyone in the building. But we’re still going to be keeping them separated, and they’ll have separate entrances and exits so that our crew and our artists will never be anywhere near the audience and we can assure them there won’t any safety concerns at all.

“And then the artists that are nominees will be seated on the floor at the Opry House, masked and socially distanced, too. We’re only going to allow five nominees at a time; as the award category comes up, those nominees will be allowed in the audience, but again, social distanced, and they must wear a mask.” Even with the tiered separation between floor, “at least it’s an opportunity to have that fan response and artists will be able to have some of that interaction with the fans up in the balcony. We think it’s a step closer toward normalcy.”

Some might even say these steps are going the extra mile, with everyone in the house being vaccinated, freshly tested or both. But setting the right example is also paramount, and as another production, the CMA Awards, learned in November, a show can come in for a lot of heat if nominees are seen in unmasked groups in the audience on camera, no matter how much producers reinforce in interviews that strict protocols were in place off-camera.

“We definitely have watched every single awards show and have tried to learn where possible,” says Whiteside. “So, sure, we’re uber-sensitive about perceptions out there, so we’re doing everything we can to ensure that it’s just as safe as possible and that the optics are right. We really don’t want to give that perception out there to the public that we’re being negligent about it. That’s especially because, in the show, ACM Lifting Lives is going to be announcing and premiering a new PSA spot that we partnered with the Ad Council, with Eric Church, Ashley McBryde and Darius Rucker, that’s about vaccine education. So we’re really trying to be at the forefront of putting an end to this pandemic and educating fans about it, and part of that is that we have to walk the talk and ensure we’re enforcing safety at all times.”

With all that being said, Whiteside is not shy about saying that, while there will be a few nods to the pandemic and its effects during the three-hour telecast, the mood of the show will be very much about the perceived light at the end of the tunnel, not the tunnel.

As proof of just how un-sober this year’s ACMs might be, the opening blowout number will be the not-so-solemn “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home),” from the team of Miranda Lambert and Elle King.

Other changes this spring from last fall’s show include the addition of Mickey Guyton as a co-host for Urban, and the just announced addition of three more locales on top of the three already established landmarks.

Lady A will perform amid the neon of the tourist strip that is Lower Broadway in Nashville’s downtown. Another performance will take place in the city’s riverside park, with the Nashville skyline lit up in gold behind. And the action will move to the Station Inn, an acoustic/bluegrass club, for Dierks Bentley and the duo the War and Treaty to sing U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love).” The Station Inn was also featured on the Grammys, with owner JT Gray being featured on that telecast days before he died. “it’s a way to really honor him and honor independent venues” affected by the pandemic, Whiteside says.

On last year’s show, nearly all the performances at the three venues were pre-taped in the hours, days or weeks leading up to the broadcast — something that went little noticed by fans, but did at least lead to educated guessing games among industry-savvy pros about which few numbers were being done in real time. (A moving duet between Urban and Guyton was one of them.) The pandemic has offered either the necessity or the excuse, depending on your viewpoint, of putting more things in the can ahead of time, as seen on the Grammys, where nearly every performance was filmed in advance. Whiteside is among those who think home viewers really don’t notice or care as long as everything feels live — though he says that most of the numbers will be back to being live-live this Sunday.

“What we’ve seen is that there’s not a huge feeling from the fans about live versus pre-taped, and I think from our show in September, even the stuff that was pre-taped, it was so seamless, you wouldn’t even know anyway,” he says. “Some of it still remains to be seen a little bit, but our plan is to be as live as possible, and for sure we’ll be live at the three (main) venues — the Bluebird, Ryman, Opry – the night of the show with live performances from there. Even if there happen to be a few performances that end up looking like that may need to be pre-taped, our artists are singing live and performing live, even if it gets pre-taped. So it still has that exciting, vibrant feeling, and we’ll have audience in all of the performances.”

On Tuesday, the ACMs and CBS released a near-complete rundown of songs that will be featured on the telecast. Besides the Lady A, Lambert/King and Bentley/War and Treaty numbers, expect to see: Lambert making a second appearance to join with upcoming trio-album partners Jack Ingram and Jon Randall (“In His Arms”), Eric Church (“Bunch Of Nothing”), Luke Combs (“Forever After All”), Dan + Shay (“Glad You Exist”), Brothers Osborne (“I’m Not For Everyone”), Alan Jackson (a medley of a song from his upcoming album, “You’ll Always Be My Baby,” with his classic “Drive (For Daddy Gene),” a duet from spouses Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd (“Chasing After You”), a pair of new Thomas Rhett songs (“What’s Your Country Song” and “Country Again”), Blake Shelton doing a medley of his 20-year-old first hit and his latest (“Austin” and “Minimum Wage”), Chris Stapleton (“Maggie’s Song”) and a Chris Young/Kane Brown duet (“Famous Friends”).

Also, Lee Brice and Carly Pearce will get to finally do a first-time live performance of their hit duet “I Hope You’re Happy Now” — something that was scheduled for November’s CMAs, until Brice contracted COVID just before the show and Lady A’s Charles Kelley took over the male part. Carrie Underwood will be joined by CeCe Winans for a medley of songs from her new gospel album, and Kenny Chesney and Kelsea Ballerini will team up for “Half of My Hometown.” Chesney will also go solo for his own new single, “Knowing You.” MIA: Luke Bryan, whose COVID diagnosis won’t just cause him to miss some “American Idol” action but this show, too.

Guyton delivered a powerful performance of the feminist ballad “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” on September’s show, accompanied by Urban on piano. Besides adding hosting duties, she’ll be back with a new song off her upcoming album, “Hold On,” which Whiteside says will be accompanied by a small choir. “That will be a tribute to all those that have been affected by COVID in this past year — it’s going to be one of those heartwarming, tear-jerking moments, honestly.”

As for the outside-the-box choice of Guyton to co-host — a critical, media and Nashville favorite, but still far from a household name alongside the likes of past hosts like Reba McEntire — Whiteside says, “One of the wonderful things about Keith is he always wants to kind of pass the torch — although he’s still in his prime, so I don’t mean pass the torch — but shine a spotlight on new talents that are future superstars. When he wanted to perform with Mickey in September and we watched that unfold on stage, it was so moving. So right after that, our producer team just talked about this year and the opportunity being that, because we’re going to be live-live at the venues, it certainly would help to have another host. In thinking about who would be good with Keith, we just couldn’t stop thinking about that performance in September. Mickey’s had an incredible year after that performance; she literally was just overnight on the map and got so much great visibility. She even of course ended up being Grammy-nominated and on the Grammys. We’re really proud of that and feel like we have some part in that by having given her that stage in September, which she deserved.”

The ACMs have long taken place in Vegas, as a reflection of the org’s west coast base, if not to give Nashville’s stars a desert vacation moment they don’t get with the eternally Tennessee-based CMAs. But since this is at least partially an “If it ain’t broke…” year, is it possible the Academy and its partner, Dick Clark Productions, might just keep the show in Nashville for a third year in 2022, too?

In a word, no; this is a two-and-done affair.

“The honest answer is we haven’t confirmed yet for next year,” Whiteside says, “but I would say it’s more likely that we’ll be going to another location next year, because we’ll be at a place where artists and our industry can travel again. Nashville has been fantastic and we’ve absolutely loved it, and we came at it in a really critical time where the city needed a spotlight on it back in September. That’s even more so now, after the difficult year Nashville had, including obviously the bombing that happened in December; this is our chance to really shine a light and say, ‘Nashville is ready for the fans and for tourism to come back.’ It feels for us like that’s kind of some kind of closure for us with Nashville, a good way to cap off our show being there for two years. We’ll be announcing fairly soon once we make a final decision on where we’ll be next year.”

The ACMs air Sunday live at 8 p.m. ET/7 CT and tape-delayed on the west coast at 8 p.m. The show can also be seen for the first time on the new Paramount Plus platform.

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