When the Academy of Country Music stages its 50th annual awards show at the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, it will mark the first time that a major music trophy ceremony goes down at a stadium.
It will not, however, be the first time country music has set foot in AT&T Stadium. In fact, the very first event at the NFL digs — held even even before the first Cowboys game there — was a George Strait concert on June 6, 2009. And this gives Blake Shelton a bit of a leg up, as he co-hosts the April 19 CBS telecast with Luke Bryan, seeing as he was one of the acts on that bill.
Shelton’s opening slot for Strait made him the first male to sing at the Jerry Jones-owned AT&T Stadium, providing him with historic first-hand experience on how to work the stage. It creates a different experience than any other stadium he’s played to date, he says, including Nashville’s LP Field and Chicago’s Wrigley Field — mainly because there’s a top on it.
“Any other stadiums I’ve played, the sound comes up from the stage and goes away,” he says. “And here — you can probably step in here now and [still] hear George Strait singing a few notes from . It was crazy to be inside but feel like it was [it’s own] world in there.”
A sneak peek during rehearsals on Friday shows that world will be fairly similar to most awards sets, but held on a much grander scale. The production uses two main stages, plus a ramp to a smaller satellite stage about 50 feet into the main floor. The artists will be seated behind the stage, instead of on the floor, with Jason Aldean, Cole Swindell and Miranda Lambert all on heightened display behind the scripted activity.
Additionally, the stage lighting dovetails with the venue’s built-in wrap-around video screens to create more graphic possibilities than in a more typical theater or arena. Not to mention the giant video screen that hangs from the roof of the stadium, allowing the fans on either side of the bowl to get a close-up view of the action as it transpires.
Lady Antebellum‘s Friday morning rehearsal, held this morning, put that dichotomy in perspective. Each of the three band members launched into “Long Stretch Of Love” framed by a pillar of lights. Before the song was over, they converged at the front of the stage, dwarfed by the set, though the cameras were able to bring a sense of presence to the big screen.
“How do you do an awards show that feels intimate and brings in the scale of AT&T?” executive producer R.A. “Rac” Clark said. “We took an advantage of everything they have for us, and it’s going to be spectacular.”
The 50th anniversary edition marks the first time the ACMs have been held outside of Southern California or Las Vegas, where they’ve been staged since 2003, fulfilling a dream that Shelton had the first time he visited the ACM office in 2001.
“In my mind, [I was] thinking it would be a good idea that the ACM could travel the show and hit a different city every year,” says Shelton, seen regularly as a coach on NBC’s The Voice. “Now knowing what I know about television, that’s not possible. That’s not a likely thing to happen. So that’s why this is so cool to me.”
Logistics are a major reason that changing cities is unlikely. While concert staging for a major tour by Tim McGraw or Brad Paisley can be designed to work in different-sized venues, the ACMs re-tool the set for every song. So there are 23 different sets created for this year’s show, and they’re built specifically for AT&T, making them unusable in other locations. In addition, where a typical large-venue tour might require a dozen trucks to haul gear, the ACM production involved 136 tractor-trailers and provided on-site camping for 90 different artist buses. The Academy started unloading equipment on March 18 and has occupied the building for the past month.
“We had 30 semis come in today to haul empty cases out — that’s just hauling empty cases out of the building so that we could move around,” said ACM CEO Bob Romeo.
“Blake and I, once the show kicks off, we’ll be in different area codes,” Bryan quipped.
As important as the awards are, they’re merely the centerpiece for three days of overlapping events in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. The ACM is holding a two-day Party for a Cause at nearby Globe Life Park, with Florida Georgia Line, Kenny Chesney, Brantley Gilbert and Dwight Yoakam among the acts participating. Those performances are being shot as well by CBS for a May 15 special, ACM Presents: Superstar Duets.
Dierks Bentley is hosting a charity motorcycle ride April 18 and Darius Rucker is heading up a golf tournament at the same time. Additionally, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood are hosting a five-hour concert at the Dallas Omni Hotel April 17 with proceeds benefiting the Academy’s charitable wing, ACM Lifting Lives.
It’s a lot to attempt, but the fan interest thus far makes it look like a worthwhile undertaking. The 75,000 tickets for the awards and passes to both days of the Party for a Cause were swallowed up the day they went on sale, with some 70 percent going to non-Texans. That means big tourism for the Dallas area, which is already one of country’s most significant markets.
“[This is] the Mecca of country music fans,” Shelton asserted. “If you took a poll around this area, I’m sure 95 percent of the people that live here are country music fans.”
Getting all the details right for those ticket-buyers — plus the millions who will tune in at home — is paramount. Thus, Lady Antebellum sang “Long Stretch Of Love” four times total during their rehearsal slot, making sure that the musicians and lighting crew were in sync with the movement that takes place during their number.
That was just one detail of thousands that have to get worked out by show time. As difficult as the project has been, if all works out as the ACM hopes, this first venture to Dallas won’t be the last. Which would give the ACM another opportunity to work out snags that it couldn’t anticipate until the Academy got inside the building.
“There’s been some discussion with the Jones family about returning every five years,” Romeo conceded. “If we come back, we’ll know a lot more than we know now.”