“Country music's away game.” That's how Academy of Country Music CEO Pete Fisher describes the organization’s 53rd annual awards show taking place April 15 in Las Vegas, over 1,750 miles from country music’s capital, Nashville.
Beginning with the first awards banquet in 1965, staged by what was then known as the Academy of Country and Western, in Los Angeles, where the organization was founded — and held since 2003 in Las Vegas — the ACM Awards are a celebration of the previous year’s musical accomplishments.
Broadcast live on CBS from the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the 2018 ceremony’s field of contenders is led by Chris Stapleton, with eight nominations, followed by Thomas Rhett, with six. Keith Urban and songwriter Shane McAnally each received five.
Reba McEntire returns as host for the first time since 2012. She follows Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley, who co-hosted the past two years.
“They did a great job. We just thought it was time for a change,” says Fisher, who in January 2017 took over the helm of the organization, now based in Encino, Calif. He adds that the decision was prompted in part by Bryan’s new role as a judge on American Idol, which airs on competing network ABC.
Neither Bentley nor Bryan are going far, however. Both are slated to perform at the show, along with Urban, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Kelsea Ballerini, Kenny Chesney, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Thomas Rhett and Bebe Rexha.
Presenters will include New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Entertainment Tonight host Nancy O’Dell, actress/former model Rebecca Romijn and Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn.
Both celebration and sorrow will shape the night. This will be the first country music awards show in Las Vegas since last October’s mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival that left 59 concertgoers dead and about 500 more wounded.
“We will have a special moment in the show where we will recognize the atrocity] and also really embrace the healing that has been going on as well,” says Fisher. “The tragedy was not only devastating to the Las Vegas community, but it was also very impactful to our country music family. For those artists and musicians to return to Las Vegas really symbolizes their courage and commitment to the city].”
Long before the April awards broadcast, however, the ACM’s philanthropic arm, Lifting Lives, was contributing to the healing in Las Vegas.
Within days of the shooting, Lifting Lives donated $250,000 to three organizations in Las Vegas that are helping victims. In February, the charity gave $150,000 to Musicians On Call, which sends performers to hospitals, to help it establish a Vegas chapter.
Lifting Lives — which, since 2003, has donated in excess of $13 million to over 190 causes including music education programs, music therapy for veterans and disaster relief — will get another boost from 16 events and performances under the sixth annual ACM Party for a Cause banner that takes place in Las Vegas April 12-15. Over 80 artists will participate in functions across the Las Vegas Strip, including ACM Stories, Songs & Stars: A Songwriter’s Event Benefiting Lifting Lives at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on April 13 with top names such as Rhett, McAnally, Lee Brice, Lori McKenna and Ashley Gorley. Also taking part in Party for a Cause: new female vocalist winner Lauren Alaina, Rhett Akins, Rodney Atkins, Kristian Bush, Cam, Lindsay Ell, Chris Janson, LOCASH, Scotty McCreery, Parmalee, Eric Paslay, RaeLynn, Cole Swindell and Chris Young.
This year, the ACM sought more involvement in activities surrounding the show. “We chose to refine Party for a Cause and really focus on the academy producing some key events,” says Fisher, such as ACM Stories and the official ACM afterparty. With the other events, he adds, “we have entered into franchise partnership arrangements. Each of those entities is making a minimum contribution to Lifting Lives and donating a portion of the proceeds above that minimum. In return, the academy is sanctioning their events.”
Among them: KWNR (95.5 The Bull) Las Vegas’ 10th annual All-Star Guitar Pull at the Palms Resort with Ballerini, Kane Brown, Luke Combs and Midland on April 12; and two Bash at the Beach concerts hosted by talent agency WME at Mandalay Bay Resort. (The Las Vegas shooter used a 32nd-floor suite at the latter location to shoot at the crowd below, and the hotel’s parent company, MGM Resorts International, in October pledged $3 million to help victims of the shooting.)
The goal is to exceed the $500,000 raised during Party for a Cause in 2017. Though the ACM Awards garner the bigger spotlight, it is the work of Lifting Lives that has the greatest impact on the ACM staff, artists and beneficiaries, says Fisher.
Lifting Lives “gives each and every person here and, for that matter, the artists in the industry who] support the academy, a real deep sense of purpose,” he says. “It’s knowing that we’re not only recognizing excellence in country music and entertaining folks, but we’re also really improving the human condition through music, which we have such a deep belief can heal and improve and lift lives.”
This article originally appeared in the March 31 issue of Billboard.