Who's ready for an encore spin of the ACM Awards in Nashville?
For the second time in seven months, the annual show airs from three landmark Music City halls: The Ryman Auditorium, Grand Ole Opry House and Bluebird Café.
More than two dozen artists plan to perform, with anticipated collaborations from Miranda Lambert and Elle King, Dierks Bentley with the War and Treaty, Kelsea Ballerini with Kenny Chesney, Chris Young and Kane Brown.
The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network, spoke with Damon Whiteside, Academy of Country Music CEO, about some of what viewers may see during the second ACM Awards impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. Read interview highlights below.
Will there be an audience?
Viewers can expect a real-life congregation (not to be confused with cardboard cut-outs that populated most major sports stadiums in the last year) filling pews inside the Ryman and Opry House during Sunday's show. ACMs producers opened doors this year for vaccinated Vanderbilt medical workers to attend live portions of the show, Whiteside said.
Each venue plans to host around 100 to 150 masked and socially-distanced onlookers.
"They'll be up on the balconies in both venues, so they won't be anywhere near our crew or artists," Whiteside said. "It'll be separate entrances from talent and crew. That'll keep it very, very safe."
Will musicians be there in person?
The show returns to hosting nominees on-site this year, but don't expect to see more than a handful of famous faces on-camera at one time. Producers plan to filter artists to venue seating for nominated categories — such as Song, Album and Entertainer of the Year. After the winner's speech, nominated artists leave the room and a new group enters.
Artists can bring one guest and must follow a backstage traffic flow protocol to minimize interaction with workers. Workers with backstage access go through "rigorous" COVID-19 testing and daily wellness checks, Whiteside said.
"All of our awards will be read from the Opry House," Whiteside said. "That's our central awards area. But then if there are artists performing in other locations, we'll allow them to accept from (there)."
But don't expect to see Luke Bryan – the entertainer of the year nominee backed out of the event because he recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Fellow nominees Luke Combs, Chris Stapleton, Eric Church and Thomas Rhett will perform.
Who are the hosts?
Keith Urban returns to host the ACM Awards, and he's joined by Grammy-nominated "Black Like Me" singer Mickey Guyton.
Guyton blew away the 2020 ACMs with her show-stopping performance of single "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?," which featured Urban on piano. The idea to enlist her as a host was first floated after the appearance, Whiteside said. With more live performances this year, it made sense to bring on a second host.
"We were so, so impressed with her chemistry," Whiteside said, adding: "She just felt like the perfect fit because of her personality. We can shine a light on a future superstar."
Why the return to Nashville?
Traditionally a West Coast operation that holds an annual awards show in Las Vegas, pandemic precautions pushed the Academy of Country Music to move last year's ACM Awards to Nashville for the first time in its 55-year history.
Travel safety — many participants would need to decamp from Nashville for the show — plus an infrastructure supported by city and venue leaders influenced the Academy's decision to double down in Music City in 2021, Whiteside said.
"We just knew that we were not going to be ready to travel our whole industry anywhere and putting our artists in jeopardy by April," Whiteside said.
And could the show return to Nashville for a third year?
"Most likely not," Whiteside said. "We love it here and have a good relationship with the city, so never say never that we wouldn't be back again — it's just next year I'm pretty confident we won't be back."
Tune in: The 56th annual ACM Awards air Sunday at 7 p.m. CST on CBS and Paramount+.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: ACM Awards 2021: What to expect from this weekend's show