How the ACM Parlayed Its Postponed Awards Show into an Uplifting New Special

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Most of Nashville’s country-music community should have been in Las Vegas by now. The 55th ACM Awards were to be held Sunday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, with trophies handed out, nominees performing, and 12 million or so viewers tuning in to CBS’s three-hour live broadcast. But like many other seemingly untouchable tentpoles — from SXSW to the Tony Awards — the coronavirus pandemic derailed those plans, leaving the Academy of Country Music, CBS, and Dick Clark Productions, the longtime producers of the ACMs, without a show.

On March 15th, the decision was announced to postpone the ACMs until September, but before that, organizers scrambled for a way to maintain the original April 5th date. They considered going ahead with the production in Las Vegas, but without an audience, then looked to staging it in Nashville, where the majority of the artists live.

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“We were looking at contingency plans, but when the coronavirus became a national emergency, we knew there was no way we could safely hold the show,” says Damon Whiteside, the new CEO of the Academy of Country Music, who assumed the role in January. “We decided we really wanted to deliver the ACM Awards in the right way and in the scale it deserves. So we postponed it.”

The unprecedented move left CBS with a gaping hole in its Sunday-night schedule, one that the ACM and Dick Clark Productions wanted to fill with some type of country-music content. They presented the idea for a clip show of ACM Awards highlights and new artist performances, filmed at home, to Jack Sussman, CBS’ executive vice president of specials, music, and live events.

“We have all of these amazing ACM specials and awards shows for 55 years; let’s look at some of that and incorporate some of the artists,” says Amy Thurlow, executive producer and president of Dick Clark Productions. “We pitched it to CBS and Jack liked it, so we started reaching out and quickly had over 20 artists. It became more of a live-performance-at-home show than a clip show.”

The finished program is ACM Presents: Our Country, an intimate two-hour collection of performances by Luke Combs, Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain, Keith Urban, Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, and others. Hosted by CBS This Morning’s Gayle King, the show premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET and offers country fans a more bare-bones musical experience than they’re used to seeing on network television.

“You get so used to these big shows with production, pyro, effects, and lighting, but at the end of the day, this stripped-down moment of heartfelt song from an artist to their fans is the strongest, most-intimate way to connect with the viewer,” says Sussman. “In this time, we really find out how healing music can be, how powerful that moment can be, and how talented these artists are.”

The ACM and the producers gave the performers the freedom to sing whatever they liked, but Whiteside advised that they keep in mind the tone of the evening when selecting songs. “The vibe of the show is to be really uplifting and positive and bringing comfort to fans,” he says.

To that end, Tim McGraw chose his inspiring ballad “Humble & Kind,” Luke Bryan picked “Most People Are Good,” and Dierks Bentley offered “I Hold On.” Underwood sang her suddenly-on-the-nose “Drinking Alone,” albeit in a way you won’t hear it on the radio.

“The repertoire in this show is amazing. Not everything sounds the same,” Sussman says. “People are playing emotional, uplifting songs, others are playing more upbeat and fun. And it’s got this great rhythm and flow that is remarkable in two hours of television.”

The show includes a pair of tributes to fallen country stars: Joe Diffie, who died last Sunday due to complications related to COVID-19, and Kenny Rogers, who died March 20th. Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, and Bryan cover some of Rogers’ biggest hits, like “The Gambler” and “Lucille,” while Chris Young honors Nineties country star Diffie in a just-announced online preshow, airing at 7 p.m. ET on the ACM’s Facebook and Amazon Music on Twitch.

ACM Presents: Our Country will also introduce the ACM Lifting Lives COVID-19 Response Fund, a new initiative, via the ACM’s charitable arm, that offers financial relief to those in the country-music community in crisis during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The show is not going to be a fundraiser by any means, because we know that fans are hurting too, but we want to raise awareness that Lifting Lives will be on the front lines and supporting our country-music community,” says Whiteside, “because thousands of people are out of work, or have reduced or eliminated salaries.”

Of course, along with the Our Country special, the ACM, CBS, and Dick Clark Productions are still salvaging the delayed ACM Awards, now set for September 16th. A venue, and even a city, have yet to be announced.

“With all of the concerts and sports events that have been rescheduled for late-summer and fall, it’s been really challenging to find a venue,” says Whiteside, who hopes to resurrect the ACM’s accompanying Party for a Cause series of concerts around the awards. Those events, originally slated for Mandalay Bay and Top Golf in Las Vegas, were canceled.

Sussman, for one, is confident that the ACM Awards will be a success in September.

“Our guys are good at this. Between the academy, the network, and DCP, we’ve done this drill for a while,” he says. “We have an internal rhythm that works well together and we will deliver a great show in the fall.”

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