When the Academy of Country Music presents its 52nd annual awards on April 2, the most unusual moment of the night could involve the presentation of a trophy to a rival organization that is, indirectly, responsible for the ACM's very existence.
"Forever Country," a song that weaves 31 artists together in an elaborate video, is a finalist for video of the year. The Country Music Association commissioned it to promote last fall's 50th annual CMA Awards. If the video trophy goes to "Forever," the acceptance speech might well be delivered by CMA CEO Sarah Trahern and/or CMA chief marketing officer Damon Whiteside, both of whom are credited among the clip's seven producers.
"They can make the most of the 45 seconds that we will give them," says ACM CEO Pete Fisher with a laugh.
That's not a slight -- 45 seconds is the amount of time every winner is officially given to leave their seat, walk to the podium and accept their award. In fact, both organizations have coordinated to make sure that no one feels slighted, should "Forever Country" indeed claim video on the CBS telecast or win vocal event of the year -- for which it's also nominated -- in the days leading up to the show.
"It's a real tangible physical example of how our two organizations really are not competitors," says Fisher. "We have a shared mission. We might go about achieving our missions in a different way, but at the end, we're all about making country music more popular, stronger, to be enjoyed by fans and profited [from] by all of the creative and business people in the industry."
That hasn't always been the tone between the two agencies. The Nashville-based CMA incorporated in 1958 in a show of genre solidarity at a time when upstart rock artists were eating into country record and ticket sales. But Music City's self-protection left many California-based artists feeling left out in the cold, thus opening the door for the ACM's inception in 1964 with a focus on cultivating western audiences.
The CMA established the Country Music Hall of Fame, but the ACM actually beat the CMA in creating an awards show. There were other moments, as well -- including when the Academy attempted to develop a festival similar to the CMA Music Festival in the 1990s -- that stoked tension between the groups.
But tension is the direct opposite of the "Forever Country" project. The CMA board, which numbers more than 75 people, originally approached director Joseph Kahn (Taylor Swift, Eminem) about using a song to commemorate the 50th anniversary. As detailed in a Billboard story in September, Kahn worked with producer Shane McAnally (Sam Hunt, Kacey Musgraves) to develop a mash-up of "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "On the Road Again" and "I Will Always Love You." And McAnally weaved 30 previous CMA winners into the recording, including George Strait, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, who delivers the final vocal line. Randy Travis, who is recovering from a 2013 stroke, was unable to sing, but made an on-screen cameo in the video, bringing the total number of acts to 31.
"Didn't they think [Kahn] was out of his mind when he came up with the idea?" Travis' wife and spokesperson, Mary Travis, says rhetorically. "'We're going to mix these three songs together?' 'You've lost your mind.' "
The single was released under the banner Artists of Then, Now & Forever on Sept. 16, with the video debuting Sept. 20 on ABC's Dancing With the Stars. It spent two weeks at No. 1 in October on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, which measures airplay, sales and streaming.
When "Forever Country" received its nominations, that Artists of Then, Now & Forever billing activated a little-used ACM rule. When the multiartist soundtracks Urban Cowboy and O Brother, Where Art Thou? won album of the year, the artists were not awarded trophies. Thus, Little Big Town, Charley Pride and the other Artists of Then, Now & Forever will likewise not see their ACM victory totals grow should "Forever Country" win. Instead, the CMA will receive an award dedicated to "Country Music Association, the recipient on behalf of the community of participating artists."
"It was a unique position we were put in," says Fisher. "We had to give it some thought and really determine what would be the best way to recognize the artist contribution here. I think it speaks not only to the fact that generations of artists came together to recognize the 50th anniversary of the CMA, but also, the artists in country music really consider themselves as a single part of a whole family, so I just think it's appropriate that the Country Music Association accepts it collectively."
In contrast, if "Forever Country" were to win a CMA Award, the individual artists would each get a trophy. That has been the case with such CMA-winning compilations as Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. But "Forever Country" has been declared ineligible in the CMAs, eliminating the possibility that it could appear the CMA had influenced the vote.
Thus, if "Forever Country" claims one or two trophies at the ACMs, it will underscore the communal nature of the project in a unique way, with the Nashville-based CMA getting credit from its former rival in California, all the while recognizing the impact of seven producers, one director, 31 artists and the teams surrounding each of those people.
"CMA is merely the producer of a piece of art that celebrates the country music industry and 50 years of award-winning music," said Trahern in a statement emailed from Australia. "Our hope would be that rather than ACM vs. CMA, it is an inclusive and all-encompassing celebration of our incredible musical history. If 'Forever Country' takes home a trophy, the credit goes to our industry and artists."
It might also further blur the lines between both organizations. The similarity of their acronyms already leaves many fans thinking they're the same agency and has caused numerous journalists to credit the wrong organization in stories. To the casual observer, the ACM giving the CMA a trophy could be a WTF moment, which is AOK with the participants.
"We are mindful of trying to keep our brands distinctive and differentiated," says Fisher. "But if there are times when we're confused with one another, this is a time that I would be very comfortable with."
This article first appeared in the Country Update newsletter. Sign up for it here.