Next year will be an important one for the Academy of Country Music Awards. The Los Angeles-based organization will celebrate the 50th anniversary since its first trophies were first presented in 1965. And, to celebrate, the show will be headed on the road for a one-time-only trip to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. To honor the occasion, ACM has partnered up with Insight Editions for the release of This Is Country: A Backstage Pass to the Academy of Country Music Awards, a coffee-table book written by the ACM’s Lisa Lee that shines the spotlight on many of the classic moments from the award show’s glorious history.
Lee, a veteran music journalist, told Billboard that going into the ACM archives was a true labor of love. “I loved going through the photos and also going back and watching the broadcasts through the years. It was so much fun getting to relive the moments, and see these people come to life. You see the evolution of the Academy of Country Music Awards through these photos and how that show captured a moment in time so that these artists can still be celebrated all these many years later.”
Many of the biggest stars in the format’s history are featured in the book’s text and pictures. Some won their very first major industry honors from the ACM, such as Randy Travis, Rascal Flatts and Hank Williams, Jr. — who took home the Entertainer of the Year prize in 1987 — after close to a quarter-century in the business.
Lee laughs when recalling Williams’ acceptance speech. He commented, “I get the feeling that a lot of people have been afraid of me over the years. But, I’m just as gentle as a lamb and just as sweet as sugar, so you don’t have to be afraid of me.”
Another emotional moment came in 1998 with Kenny Chesney being named Top New Male Vocalist. He brought his mother to the stage to share in the moment. “That’s something that the ACM is really proud of — supporting new artists, and giving them some early recognition that really helps propel them to the next level,” said Lee.
Lee also takes readers on a rare look at just how the Academy came to be.
“When we started the project, we would always hear about these four mythical founders of the Academy — Tommy Wiggins, Eddie Miller, and Mickey and Chris Christensen,” she said. “We knew they were in the industry out here on the West Coast, but we really didn’t know what they did. I really started getting a picture of it when I interviewed Chris, who led us to Tommy Wiggins, who led us to Janet McBride, who was one of the early winners. She lives in Texas now, and was a treasure trove of information. You really get a sense of just why the Academy is located in L.A. There was such a vibrant scene here in the ’60s that so many people are unaware of. It was really interesting talking to Tommy and Mickey about what they remember because their memories have never been captured.”
The story of Hollywood’s involvement with the ACM is also well documented. Actors such as Buddy Ebsen, Dennis Weaver and Patrick Duffy hosted the awards in the 1970s and 1980s. And many more actors have presented on the show — a trend that continues to this day.
Lee says a major part of the Hollywood appeal was the involvement of Dick Clark, who hosted four of the ceremonies.
“Having him be a part of the show was a stamp of approval in the Hollywood community, because Dick was such an icon,” she says. “His name carried a lot of weight, and his hosting of the show sent a message that the ACM’s were serious and a legit thing.”
Clark’s production company has been in charge of the yearly broadcast since 1979.
One artist whose history you really get to see grow with the ACM Awards is Reba McEntire. “You see Reba’s entire career as a part of the show. She’s our longest-running host, but before that, she was a part of the show. She still jokes about losing her first trophy to Terri Gibbs,” Lee notes with a laugh, adding that “It’s great to go back and watch her many looks and the many faces of Reba. That is one thing I enjoyed a lot — seeing the heritage of the Academy and how the ACM has been so involved with the artists for so many years and phases of their career.”
This Is Country is on sale now.