When the best of country music gathers Sunday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for the annual Academy of Country Music Awards, there will be camaraderie, fun times, and celebrations, but there will also be a somberness hanging over the event.
It has been a little more than six months since Stephen Paddock rained bullets down on country music fans at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas as Jason Aldean was on stage performing. Paddock killed 58 people and injured nearly 1,000 more, including several who still remain in the hospital, at an event only a short distance from the MGM.
Jason Aldean performs live on Thursday in Burbank, Calif. Aldean was performing in Las Vegas earlier this year during the shooting that claimed 58 lives. During this weekend's Academy of Country Music awards, Aldean will participate in a tribute to those affected by the tragedy.
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Longtime ACM producer RAC Clark, who grew up in Youngstown and is the son of Dick Clark, is the man tasked with honoring the victims and celebrating the accomplishments of the industry.
“We want to acknowledge the October tragedy, and we went back and forth on how best to do that. We reached out to Jason Aldean, and without tipping what we are going to do, Jason is going to help us put together a moment to acknowledge that,” Clark says. “Everyone I have talked to — fans, production people, and artists themselves — it’s been very traumatic. In deference to them, I think we found a great way to pay tribute, honor, and celebrate the music that brings us all together.”
It is a theme echoed by Chris Young, who was backstage at the Route 91 festival to see pals Aldean and Kane Brown perform when the shooting broke out.
“That was a scary situation and one of the craziest nights of my life. I had a show the next week, and I debated about whether to cancel it, and I decided not to because it was very much a healing thing for me and, hopefully, for other people. I think that through it all, music has been a healing thing for everyone.”
And there is going to be a lot of music packed into the three-hour program, which airs 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS.
“Hopefully you’ll hear all the music you like that is on the radio now. There are a few folks who have new music that we’re excited to help premiere,” says Clark, who has produced the event for 20 years. “There will be some classic music from the ’90s, a few throwbacks we’re going to do. And there will be some fun collaborations.”
Clark is expecting at least 22 performances — and maybe even 23. Kenny Chesney, Lady Antebellum, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Kelsea Ballerini, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Thomas Rhett, Dierks Bentley, Alan Jackson, Little Big Town, and Aldean have already been announced as performers.
Reba McEntire returns as host after a five-year break from that job.
“Having Reba come back is perfect for us. I love working with her. It’s very comfortable, and she’s so good at it,” Clark says. “I think the folks at home have missed her. Every time she has appeared to present an award, she has gotten a standing ovation, so it’s nice to have her back.”
Country music, which is already the dominant format among radio stations nationwide, continues to evolve to draw in more fans. The stylistic diversity of this year’s nominees is more evidence that the genre is effectively expanding its base.
Traditionalist and southern rocker Chris Stapleton leads with eight nominations, including his first nomination for Entertainer of the Year. R&B and pop-leaning Thomas Rhett is up for six awards, while Morris and Ballerini, nominees for Female Vocalist of the Year, are on the verge of superstardom. Midland, a throwback to the 1970s in fashion and style, has already been honored as the New Vocal Duo or Group of the Year and is a nominee for Single of the Year (for “Drinkin’ Problem”) and Vocal Group of the Year, competing against the group they are touring with, Little Big Town.
“They’ve won [Vocal Group] before, they probably wouldn’t mind losing one year,” Cameron Duddy of Midland says, chuckling. “The recognition means a lot to us. It feels good that people understand what we are doing.”
One of the newer forces in country music has been Stapleton. Though he has been one of Nashville’s most successful songwriters for the past 15 years, he did not receive his due as a frontman until the 2015 release of his album, Traveller. At November’s Country Music Association Awards show, he won Male Vocalist and Album of the Year. Sunday night, Stapleton is pitted against sentimental favorite and last year’s winner Aldean for Entertainer of the Year. Also in the category are Garth Brooks, Bryan, and Keith Urban. For Male Vocalist, Stapleton will face last year’s winner Rhett, Aldean, Urban, and Young, who is nominated for the first time in the category.
“It’s hard to get into that category, so even being nominated is exciting for me, and whatever happens happens,” Young says. “When I first got started, my friends and even other artists would tell you I was never the guy who wanted to be known as the best guitar player. I always wanted to be known as a great singer. So it is really a point of pride to get that nomination.”
An area in which country music needs to improve is developing and promoting female artists. This is the first year since 2007 that a woman is not among the Entertainer of the Year finalists. It will be interesting to see if Ballerini or Morris can prevail against Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and McEntire for Female of the Year. If either wins, it would be a positive step.
For the first time, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have been nominated for Vocal Duo of the Year. But the more encouraging trend among the Duo and Group categories is the number of newer acts among the nominees. Brothers Osborne, Dan + Shay, and LOCASH are up for Duo. Lanco and Midland are represented in the Group category.
“We may be the oldest new artists out there. The levity of the situation is not lost on us,” Duddy jokingly says.
Before Midland, Duddy was a successful music video director, directing many of Bruno Mars’ videos. The country music career fell in place in the last five years after Duddy, Mark Wystrach, and Jess Carson decided to put Midland together. Their debut album, On the Rocks, has only been out for about six months, but the group’s chemistry and harmonies have paved the way for the early success.
“You get three guys together, and their voices don’t necessarily blend, but it seemed natural for us,” Duddy says. “It’s tough when you’ve got three guys in their late 20s. You are fully formed adult men at that point, so to meet in the middle on things doesn’t come naturally. It’s hard to be in a band, but it has worked for us.”
Sunday night, country music fans will hear Midland perform “Drinkin’ Problem” and will have the opportunity to experience the talent and depth of today’s country artists. It will also be another chance for fans and artists to add another layer of healing. With the star power on stage and the Las Vegas tribute, the show promises to be an emotional roller coaster for viewers.
“I don’t know of any other music awards show that can get so many performances in three hours. Maybe someone else does, but we are one of the most musically packed shows out there,” Clark says. “Tune in at the beginning and hold on to your seat because it is going to be a long, but fun, ride.”
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