ACM Awards executive producer R.A. Clark has been at this a long time -- 15 years and counting. The producer (and son of the late Dick Clark) helped put the show’s deep roots in the country music traditions of the west -- and the Bakersfield and Hollywood country sounds -- in perspective.
Here, Clark discusses the Merle Haggard tribute (and the time his dad killed the country icon in a film), the chemistry and competition between Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan, the amazing crossover happening in country music right now, and how Roc Nation’s Jay Brown helped make the Shakira-Blake Shelton duet happen.
Billboard With three days to go before the Academy of Country Music Awards, what are you working on now?
R.A. "Rac" Clark: I’m composing a letter to Mr. [Garth] Brooks for his tribute to Merle Haggard on Sunday -- getting him some script copy. "Hey G, thought you'd like to see this before Sunday, let me know if you have any notes"
Is your job as executive producer that granular?
Yeah. I look at it. But our team of writers Jon Macks, Dave Boone and Barry Adelman, who's the other executive producer with me, they write and I look over everything.
There are other executive producers as well, right?
Mike Mahan and Allen Shapiro from Dick Clark Productions. I'm a hired gun, I work freelance. I did the Beatles Special with Ken Ehrlich this year and the Tornado Relief special with Blake Shelton in Oklahoma. I go from project to project, and I've done [so] since 1999.
How's the show looking so far?
I'm most excited about this Merle medley, there's this family history with Merle and my father going back to 1968. In "Killers Three" where my father gave him his first acting gig in a movie. My father played a villain and killed Merle Haggard who played a sheriff. That's how long this goes back.
The history of the ACMs is fascinating. It goes back to 1964, when the emphasis was on the “western” in country & western, with a goal towards "promoting country music in the 13 Western states” and artists like Johnny Bond, Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, Buck Owens, Tex Williams and others.
It came from the Bakersfield sound and the Hollywood sound -- Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Gene Autry, singing cowboys -- and the Bakersfield sound. It was a conglomeration between those two entities that were not a part of the traditional Nashville scene; Owen Bradley, Studio B at RCA, Music Row. It was the other side of the country scene in the 1960s. They started up this organization out here on the west coast as the Academy of Country and Western Music.
Are you involved in any of the other events this week?
We do two events back-to-back. The three-hour live event on Sunday, and then on Monday we'll do a "A Salute to the Troops."
Isn't there a Fan Jam that's going to be interspersed throughout the show as well?
Over the last 4 years, we've gotten so big that Bob Romeo, who is the [CEO] of the Academy, came up with the idea of taking over Vegas and doing another concert and calling it Fan Jam. Every year it's hosted by a headliner. When it started it was Sugarland. Last year we had Brad Paisley. This year it's Florida Georgia Line. They will do a couple of songs, and we intercut that in as a live remote from that venue for the television show.
And how much of a technical nightmare is that?
I wouldn't call it a nightmare. We have a separate crew, separate logistics -- it's another show. That doesn't even include the shoot we're doing with Brad Paisley by the MGM Grand pool. We come from all places around Las Vegas.
Why do it the easy way?
It makes it more challenging and more fun, and I think it translates. The energy of the fans in the Fan Jam room is different than the industry at MGM. It's a little bit more bawdy, with rowdier people, at Fan Jam.
Are you crossing your fingers in the control booth?
I sit on the stage with our hosts in case things develop. We’ve had some issues in the past; bands don’t make it on stage, we have to rearrange the show, we have to do things on the fly. I used to stage manage, I was the lead stage manager back in the '90s on this show, so I have a long history. I was on the board of the ACMs. One of my first career moves was being a show runner, and then I was a head runner, and then I was a stage manager. So I’ve seen every facet of the show.
Is this where you got all your TV training from?
The Academy and a lot of other events. I didn’t work for Dick Clark Productions for the first five years of my career. I was a freelance runner, then a head runner, production coordinator, a researcher, talent booker. Then an opportunity came up and I went in and worked on a project at the company. At the time I was mad at my father because it was like “Dad, I’m getting out of college, I need a job.” And he was like, “I know, good luck.” And I said, “Wait a sec, come on.” He said “Alright, I’ll introduce you to some folks.” To his credit he opened a few doors and I interviewed at six different places and I got a job at Hanna-Barbera being a cartoon reader and doing coverage on cartoons. That was interesting, doing synopses of cartoons of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear.
With your background, you must have been exposed to all kinds of music.
I grew up in Ohio. My mother and father divorced when I was very young. I used to listen to WHOT 1330AM in Youngstown, Ohio growing up. And all sorts of Top 40 in the 1960s and '70s. But my father, because of “American Bandstand,” sent me every single album -- I used to get packages of records I would listen to for hours. Some kids watched TV, read books, I listened to music. Some of it was country, most of it was rock and roll. But I did like country, especially in 1968, when he did that movie with Merle Haggard, I got turned on to Bonnie Owens and to Merle Haggard –- “Mama Tried.”
There was a lot of country music crossing over to the pop charts in the 1970s and there’s a lot today –- do you think we’re living in a similar time?
It’s cyclical. It goes through ebbs and flows of popularity. Country music today is the most popular I’ve ever seen it... but there was the Urban Cowboy phase, there’s been “Boot Scootin Boogie Days,” the “Achy Breaky” days. We’ve gone thrugh these cycles of country that are in the zeitgeist of popular culture. I think Blake being on “The Voice” was a quantum leap for country. Reba on Broadway doing “Annie Get Your Gun,” and her sitcom. It’s been crossing over more and more in the last decade than ever before
The ACM’s had outstanding ratings last year -- I think it was 15 million.
Yes, up about 25% from the year before. Thanks for pointing this out. No stress here, no pressure.
What is the chemistry like between the hosts Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan?
It’s funny, Blake was the new kid with Reba. He was nervous -- he had barely started doing "The Voice" when we had him on. [When] Reba decided to bow out, we thought Blake could do it alone.
But Blake was like, “Yeah, but there’s this guy I really like. We’re good friends, he’s got a great sense of humor.” He was just beginning to break -- and it was Luke. So we talked to his management and him... and he was nervous, just like Blake was nervous his first time. But they reflect what is the most popular country music right now, these young, good-looking guys with a good sense of humor. We said “Well, let’s throw them together for the bromance and see what we get.” We really didn’t know until we put them into a room and shot promos, four months before the show. It was hysterical -- the outtakes, which we’ve been sworn never to release, is some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen -- I love it. They’re just so comfortable together, and I think it reflects itself on screen.
Is Blake the mentor, the older brother maybe, to Luke? Is that the rapport?
There was that rapport, but this year you’re going to see Luke -- who has a few more notches in his gun -- I think he’s going to step up and give Blake a good talking to. There’s going to be a little shift in the dynamic. Blake can’t be the know-it-all because Luke’s got some chops.
With Shakira and Blake, Lady Antebellum and Stevie Nicks and many others, which performance are you most excited about?
Don’t ask me to choose my babies, I’ll get my head handed to me.
What do you think the audience will enjoy the most?
I think the Blake and Shakira moment. It started with Suzanne Bender, who is the co-producer of the show, who has a very good friend in [Roc Nation's] Jay Brown, who works with Rihanna and Shakira. Jay said “I have a song you guys gotta hear.” So we went over to Jay’s office and he played it for us and I said “Can we have this?” He said, “Yeah. It’s a different look for Shakira. We should get into this.” So we talked to Blake and we talked to Shakira and it went through all these machinations. And here we are. So I’m excited just because the song is so great and they have that blend, and they have a relationship because of “The Voice.” It’ll be fun to watch them sing together.
How’s the fan voting going for Entertainer of the Year?
Neck and neck -- all five nominees from what I hear. I don’t know the results but it’s been the tightest it’s ever been.
It's amazing you don’t know by now.
Some years you know it’s going to be X, Y, and Z and know on Thursday or Friday. This year it’s neck-and-neck.
The ACM Awards will air this Sunday at 8PM ET/PT on CBS.