When Academy of Country Music Awards (ACMs) executive producer R.A. (RAC) Clark went to Las Vegas recently to catch a performance by Brooks & Dunn and ACM host Reba McEntire, he felt compelled to drive by Las Vegas Village, the outdoor concert site where 58 people were gunned down Oct. 1, 2017, during the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival.
“It was eerie,” says Clark. “You feel it. Even though they have it fenced off and there was plastic up, knowing that that’s where that happened, it’s ominous.”
The shadow of that vicious attack is a potential hurdle for many the week of April 9 as hundreds of members of the country music community descend on Vegas for the 53rd annual ACMs on April 15. The site, at 3901 S. Las Vegas Boulevard, is barely a block away from the airport, likely visible from a window seat on many incoming flights. It’s also a half-mile straight shot down the Strip from the awards’ site, the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The Village, the MGM Grand and the Mandalay Bay — the hotel the shooter used as a base while attacking concertgoers — are coincidentally all owned by MGM Resorts, and the proximity of those properties is bound to create some emotional moments for many, whether they were survivors of the shooting or simply know someone who experienced it.
“It rocked the whole format, whether you were there or not,” says Red Light marketing executive Tom Lord.
Red Light clients Jake Owen, Sam Hunt, Maren Morris, Bailey Bryan and Muscadine Bloodline all participated in the festival that weekend. “You don’t want anybody to relive it,” says Lord. “But you don’t want to forget it.”
Therein lies the challenge for the ACM. The Academy and its broadcast partner, CBS, trademarked the awards as “country music’s party of the year.” But it has been barely six months since the shooting. Particularly for those who are visiting the city for the first time since, the idea of celebrating just a few blocks from the spot where friends were shot at and customers were killed is likely to trigger loads of guilt.
“This is the elephant in the room,” says Clark. “We are going to address it right at the top of the show. Rather than say exactly what we’re going to do, I would prefer to keep it a mystery until we do. But I feel like we found the appropriate voices to put to it. Then we have to get into our show — not leave it behind, but focus on what’s ahead of us.”
Entertainer of the year nominee Garth Brooks, who is not expected to attend, sees it as an opportunity to make a statement.
“Sometimes in an awards show, there are moments that can happen that are bigger than the whole show itself,” he says. “I’m hoping there’s going to be some magic, because it’s laying there to be had, and it couldn’t happen to better people in a more tragic situation, how they all reacted and how they acted together.”
Appropriately, the ACM felt some unity in coming back to Vegas. With the exception of the 50th annual awards, held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the 2018 telecast marks the 15th time in 16 years that the Academy has handed out its trophies along the Strip. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, moving to another city was an option. But it was eliminated quickly.
“To go back to Vegas this year just absolutely seems purposeful,” says ACM CEO Pete Fisher. “It’s going to be emotional, and for those who were on those festival grounds on Oct. 1, I think emotionally, they will find themselves kind of pushing through some very difficult things.”
Fisher wasn’t at the festival, but he’s familiar with the grief that the site can conjure. He has been to Vegas as the ACM prepares for the awards, and he has felt the weight of overlooking a crime scene.
“It really made it all real to me, being in a hotel room where I could visibly see the festival grounds,” he says. “It kind of gave me a sense of what that evening must have been like, and in some ways, it gives you a greater resolve to make sure that, in this world of good versus evil, you want to out-good the evil.”
To that end, the ACM’s charitable foundation, ACM Lifting Lives, donated $400,000 to four charities in the past six months to assist with Route 91-related issues. That includes a $150,000 grant to Musicians On Call, which will be followed up in the days preceding the awards with hospital visits by country artists and special moments during some of the week’s ACM Party for a Cause benefit concerts. Additionally, the ACM hosted a butterfly release on April 8 at the Las Vegas Healing Garden, where Collin Raye was scheduled to sing two songs, “Love Remains” and “Amazing Grace.”
“The fact that the attack happened on a country music concert crowd made it a lot more personal to everybody in our industry,” says Raye. “Those are the people who keep us afloat and keep the music alive.”
Raye likens the shooting to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Germany’s World War II concentration camps, noting the importance of visiting such emotionally difficult locales.
“It’s important that we don’t forget those things and we don’t forget the places,” he says.
MGM is still figuring out how best to move forward with the Route 91 site, which is currently inaccessible to visitors. But at least being in the vicinity can be part of the healing process. SiriusXM senior director of country programming J.R. Schumann, who came within inches of being hit by bullets during the attack, remained in Vegas for four days after the shooting, forced to work out of several different hotels — including the MGM — when the area went on lockdown. Aided by the experience of doing a seven-year stint as a paramedic in which he witnessed plenty of horror, he began to rebound in the immediate days and weeks after the shooting.
“Walking into my apartment for the first time by myself was interesting,” he says. “Just as easily as I was walking in, it could have been someone else walking in to start packing up all of my stuff.
“You can look at it as a very traumatic event that haunts you for the rest of your life,” he continues, “or you can look at it as a new lease on life.”
Jason Aldean, who was onstage when the massacre began, has taken that latter view, noting that it further cemented his relationship with wife Brittany.
“She was there with me, and we kind of went through all that stuff together,” says Aldean. “It’s one more thing we had to endure that’s probably made us stronger than ever.”
Aldean, of course, responded in October by performing Tom Petty‘s “I Won’t Back Down” on Saturday Night Live and by reprising it with several other acts later that month during the CMT Artists of the Year TV special.
For many in the country music business, returning to Vegas is an important, continuing step in putting the attack in the rearview mirror and pushing again into the future.
“It’s like dealing with a death in your family,” says Schumann. “It’s OK to move on, and not only is it OK, it’s important. You have to.”