Hosts Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton on What to Expect at the 2021 ACM Awards

Keith Urban, Mickey Guyton
Courtesy Photo

Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton

Plus, Guyton's thoughts on country music's efforts at inclusion: 'The entire industry is having an overhaul'

When Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton co-host the 56th ACM Awards on Sunday (April 18), it will mark the 29th time the show has featured multiple hosts, but the first time a Black female artist has co-hosted.

The evening promises a number of other firsts -- every single of the year nomination features a woman artist, and a record four Black artists are nominated for awards in a single year.

But equally important, Urban and Guyton pledge to bring “light and love and hope” into people’s homes as the nation slowly edges towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like last year’s event, which was delayed until September because of the pandemic, the ACM Awards will beam from three Nashville venues: the Bluebird Cafe, the Grand Ole Opry House and the Ryman Auditorium as more than 25 artists perform, including Maren Morris and Chris Stapleton, who both lead all nominations with six each; Blake Shelton and Dan + Shay. (This year, performances will also be staged at the Station Inn, Bridge Building and on Broadway.)

Unlike last year, when no crowd was allowed, this year there will be a small audience of vaccinated and masked health care workers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Miranda Lambert, who is the most nominated female artist in Academy history and is up for five statues Sunday night, will open the show with Elle King, performing their boisterous “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home).”

Guyton and Urban chatted with Billboard via Zoom about co-hosting tricks, the changing face of country and whether they hope this is the first of many years of co-hosting.

The ACM Awards will air live on at 8:00 p.m., live ET/delayed PT on CBS. The show will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.

Billboard: Keith, what is the one thing the one thing that you wish you had known last year going into hosting that you’ve been able to impart to Mickey?

Urban: I literally can’t think of one thing that I took away from last year that surprised me. I felt like I knew what the show was going to be like and it was just a case of going in and doing it. Yes, it’s a very unique experience doing a show with no audience but what I found during the ACMs last year is it’s all about the camera.

When you see award shows and have performed on them like we both have, there’s people everywhere, so you’re kind of performing for them and you kind of forget there’s millions and millions of people [watching on TV]. It’s only everybody watching that we’re performing for. Of course, a handful of health care workers are going to be in the audience, which is really cool, but it does bring the focus right to the camera.

Mickey, even though the venues won’t be full, there will be millions of eyes on you. Does that make you nervous?

Guyton: This is all new for me and just hearing Keith say that right now is helping me. Hearing him say it’s all about the camera and realize it’s all about the reach outside of that auditorium. You’re talking to so many people. We’ve been in lockdown for over a year and that’s so hard for all of us and all I want to do is give people light and love and hope during this award show, so that is great advice that Keith gave me right now. I’m going to take that to heart.

Keith, when you hosted in September, we were still in the middle of the pandemic. Vaccines still seemed very far off. Hopefully, we’re headed toward the tail end. How will that affect the show’s mood?

Urban: I think there’s reason to embrace the positive feeling that we have. At the same time -- and I’m always aware of it—everybody is in various situations in their life. Everybody has their own relationship with this reality and, if you’re like me, it changes. Sometimes, I’m ok with it, sometimes I’m angry with it, sometimes I’m scared, sometimes I’m courageous. I run the gamut. But there’s still people dealing with family struggles and work struggles and life struggles, so hopefully this ACM moment is, like Mickey said, a chance for us to come out and connect and bring some energy and light and love and life to everybody.

This year, all the nominees for single of the year feature a woman artist and there are four Black artists nominated in various categories. What does this say about a country community that is struggling to become more inclusive?

Guyton: Absolutely this is the precursor to what is to come. I’m part of the ACM diversity task force that was started back in 2018 and I’ve been in the room with some of the most amazing people in the country music community that are relentlessly working and trying to find more way to be inclusive. You’re not going to see all the results you want to see in a year or two years, but it is showing. And you’re seeing that even within the show, the performances, the people that are being nominated and the people in front of the camera and behind the scenes. It’s becoming more diverse and you will see that and you will feel that. And it is such a beautiful thing. We are bridging the gap and it is so cool to be on that side.

At the same time, there were no women nominated for entertainer of the year for the third time in four years. What work do you feel needs to be done there?

Guyton: That is 100% something that we’re still working on. We won’t see the results tomorrow. The entire industry is having an overhaul and looking within themselves. With opportunity comes possibility and we have to give everyone -- women, people of color, people in the LGBTQ community -- opportunities to be heard. It starts within the whole industry and that also includes [ACM] membership and we’re trying to find membership and representation within that so it doesn’t happen again because there are amazing artists who are women that should 100% be in that category. We’re working to fix that and I can say that right now.

Urban: Our genre has a long history of women in that category from Barbara Mandrell on. You just saw Carrie Underwood [who tied for entertainer with Thomas Rhett] last year, so there’s no reason that category should ever be non-inclusive. I like that we’re headed in what feels like the right direction. We’ve got to walk the talk. It’s all fine for everyone to give a lot of lip service and it’s all fine for everybody to make some changes one year and then slowly push them to the side, so, hopefully, this is very much based on traction. We get actual things happening and then they just continue forward. All kinds of people love country music and make country music so it’s time that we get to present everybody.

People are very excited about seeing you host together. Are we seeing the beginning of a dynasty like we had with Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who hosted the CMA Awards together for 11 years?

Urban: I’m in!

Guyton (laughing): I’m like “Let me get through Sunday,” but I’m in too!

The ACM Awards are produced by dick clark productions, which is owned by P-MRC Media, the parent company of Billboard.

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