When the nominations for the 54th annual Academy of Country Music Awards were announced Feb. 20, many of the leading nominees were artists who had broken through in the last six years: Chris Stapleton, who received six nominations, released his first solo album, Traveller, four years ago; Dan + Shay, who also garnered six (with the duo’s Dan Smyers receiving four additional nods for his work as a producer and songwriter) put out their Where It All Began debut in 2014; Kacey Musgraves (five nominations) dropped her major-label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, in 2013; and Brothers Osborne (four noms) are on only their second full-length album, 2018’s Port Saint Joe.
“I’m very pleased with the nominees this year,” says ACM CEO Pete Fisher. “Of particular note is the [academy’s] recognition of Kacey Musgraves on the heels of her huge win at the Grammy Awards. It reflects that the ACM voting members feel the same way and equally applaud her.”
Second-round voting for the ACMs closed Feb. 11, one day after Musgraves scored four Grammys, including album of the year for Golden Hour. Nominations for relative newcomers Luke Combs, Maren Morris and Kane Brown are further evidence, says Fisher, “that the academy’s process is relevant.”
CBS will broadcast the ceremony live from Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 7. The show is produced by Dick Clark Productions (which shares a parent company with Billboard).
The one area where the nominations fell short was the complete absence of women in the entertainer of the year category for the second year in a row. In 2019, all of the artists vying for the honor are white men — Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban — and the last woman to win was Taylor Swift in 2011.
Even Reba McEntire, who will return as the telecast’s host, expressed her dismay after announcing the nominees on CBS This Morning. “It doesn’t make me very happy, because we’ve got some very talented women out there who are working their butts off,” she said. Fisher shares that disappointment: “We want our organization to represent all of the great music and talent that is in country music.”
In an effort to address the gender imbalance, Fisher reveals that the academy is developing a task force to examine barriers and biases affecting women and underrepresented groups in country music. The group is expected to provide constructive recommendations about where progress can be made within the academy as well as the industry at large.
The ACM’s move comes after the Grammys’ Recording Academy set up a similar task force in 2018 that resulted in inviting a younger and more diverse voting membership. Fisher expects to release more details on the ACM’s iteration later in March.
At a time when awards shows in general are struggling with anemic ratings, overall viewership of the ACM Awards remains strong: It rose over 1 million in 2018 to 12 million, according to Nielsen. “I would credit Reba’s return to hosting as a key factor in the success we enjoyed,” says Fisher of McEntire, who hosted the telecast 14 times between 1986 and 2012 and returned in 2018 after a five year-hiatus.
Last year’s broadcast, the first country music awards show in Las Vegas following the October 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival, also benefited from Carrie Underwood’s stage comeback following an injury that had left her out of the spotlight for months and the debut of ACM Flashbacks — segments that paired a contemporary artist with a legendary act to perform a country classic made famous by the latter artist. Highlights from last year included duets between Kelly Clarkson and McEntire, and Alan Jackson and Jon Pardi. “Viewers both young and old enjoyed those iconic moments, which drive viewership,” says Fisher.
Not surprisingly, the ACM Flashbacks will continue this year. Also likely to draw in viewers is the presentation of the artist of the decade award to Aldean. Previous honorees have been Marty Robbins (1969), Loretta Lynn (1979), Alabama (1988), Garth Brooks (1998) and George Strait (2009). Aldean, who has been named ACM entertainer of the year the past three years, is only the second country act in history (after Rascal Flatts) to score four consecutive No. 1s on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart with his 2018 album, Rearview Town. The academy’s special awards committee deliberates on the candidates for artist of the decade before selecting one name to put forth before the board. For the first time this year, managers, labels and artists could submit names.
The 54th annual ceremony marks Fisher’s third time at the helm since assuming leadership of the academy in early 2017. His biggest observation since taking charge is how the country music communities unite. “Week to week, there’s still competition between everyone,” he says, “but a few times a year our industry comes together and really tries to do their best for country music.”