How the Academy of Country Music Switched From an Awards Show to a Unifying Evening Amid a Pandemic

Academy Of Country Music Awards, ACM
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A view of the main stage during the 54th Academy Of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 7, 2019 in Las Vegas.

A little over a month ago, the Academy of Country Music Awards were still set to take place in Las Vegas on April 5 for what was billed as “country’s biggest party of the year.”

Then the world came crashing down as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe and all live events came to a halt. A party was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

With some nimble thinking by the Academy, producer dick clark productions and CBS, and the major help of technology, the show will still go on Sunday night, but in a different form as ACM Presents: Our Country. The two-hour program, which will air on CBS at 8 p.m. ET, will feature more than 20 country artists—many of whom were already slated to appear on the ACM Awards —performing from their homes.

Among those appearing include Kelsea Ballerini, Dierks Bentley, Kane Brown & John Legend, Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Luke Combs, Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert, Thomas Rhett, Blake Shelton & Gwen Stefani, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban (who was slated to host). Additionally, the special, hosted by Gayle King, will honor the late Kenny Rogers, who died March 20. Joe Diffie, the first country artist to die from coronavirus on March 29, will also be honored in some way.

As COVID-19 spread into the U.S., the awards show constantly pivoted as the news kept getting “worse and worse,” says dcp president Amy Thurlow, who also serves an executive producer of the show. The initial plan was to continue with an awards show in Las Vegas with no audience, then as an awards show in Nashville, where many of the participating artists are based, then possibly a show where the artists received their awards remotely. Then, three weeks ago, it became clear that there could be no awards show.

“It just didn’t feel like it would be fair to the prestige of the awards show and to the artists who were winning having them accept via Skype,” says Academy CEO Damon Whiteside.

The Academy and dcp came up with the idea of a clips special from past ACM Awards shows with some home performances. “Then because we got so much positive response from the artists, it quickly became much more of a performance show than a clip show,” Thurlow says.

“It allows the artists to still connect with the fans and give the fans a really nice diversion,” Whiteside says.

“We jumped on board right away,” says Jack Sussman, CBS executive vp of specials, music and live events. “It gives people the moment they want with their favorite country artist. This is safe and entertaining at the same time.”

The plan then became how to corral performances from artists that put no one in harm’s way. The decision was made to have each artist pre-tape their performance themselves with no crews using their cell phones, iPads, laptops, digital cameras or other means.

“Keeping people safe was a big concern,” says Mark Bracco, dcp executive vp of programming and development and the show’s executive producer. “You’ll see the three members of Lady Antebellum in three different places. Florida Georgia Line’s Brian [Kelley] and Tyler [Hubbard], are with their wives and their kids and it’s nice to see their babies. It was a very conscious decision that was made that we respect social distancing. Whatever piece of equipment you have, use and then send it to us.”

It was up to the individual artist to decide what song to perform— some sing the songs they planned to perform on the awards show, others go in different directions. “The tone is varied from artist to artist. The one thread is we’re all in this together,” Sussman says.

“I wouldn’t say we were too prescriptive,” Whiteside says. “We trust the instincts of the artists. Virtually everyone knew what they wanted to do and what they wanted to say. It wasn’t like we needed to feed them lines or a script.” The only person given a script was King, who introduces the evening and the performances.

The performances were recorded over the past week. As more rolled in every day, Bracco turned them over to dcp’s head of post production, Sacha Mueller, and an editor, who, practicing social distancing, sat in an edit bay and assembled the different takes and created the flow of the show with King’s comments. “It was kind of amazing to us, the Academy and CBS to realize we can operate almost completely remotely for a two-hour special and never once be in the room with the artists,” Bracco says.

The one thing the show highlights, say all concerned, is the talent, given that many of the artists are only accompanying themselves on guitar with none of the normal bells and whistles. “They grew up and made their bones throwing their guitar in the back of their cars and playing a bar where 20 people heard them play 15 feet in front of them,” Sussman says. “It shows how talented they are without any production value. You can see the real raw talent.”

While the show is not a fundraiser, it will highlight the ACM Lifting Lives COVID-19 Response Fund, a fund created earlier this week to assist individuals working in the country music industry who need financial assistance as a result of the pandemic. The fund began with a $250,000 endowment from the Academy. The Academy will match donations from partners and sponsors up to an additional $250,000. Donors already include The Bobby Bones Show, FirstNet, Built with AT&T, and Amazon Music.

“We gave a lot of thought to what we could do to raise funds in the show,” Whiteside says, “but being cognizant of the climate with so many people suffering, it didn’t feel good to ask people for money, so we decided to just make fans aware of what Lifting Lives is doing.”

The goal, Whiteside says, is to provide some respite and entertainment. “I hope the audience feel uplifted. I hope they’ll feel part of the country music community and they had two hours [away] from the news headlines,” he says. “I want it to be something people feel really good to escape to in a safe way.”

As happy as they are with the show, Bracco says he can’t wait for the ACM Awards, which will now take place Sept. 16: “We love putting on a big show. We love putting on a big spectacle and we will go back to that, but what this show has taught us is intimacy, emotion and authenticity can shine through without tons of light and pyro.”

Billboard and dick clark productions are both owned by Valence Media.