ACM Chief Throws a Party With a Purpose

The year since Pete Fisher was named head of the Academy of Country Music has been fraught with modern-record-industry problems (old model, new business), social issues like #MeToo and #TimesUp and, closest to home, the unthinkable mass shooting at last fall’s Route 91 Festival in Las Vegas. It’s a lot to take in.

And for the organization that throws a show billed as “Country Music’s Party of the Year,” it’s also not the easiest backdrop for the ceremony, given an awards season that has already seen so much activism and politics. Fortunately for the ACMs, Fisher is a 17-year Grand Ole Opry vet who stewarded the iconic country music show through the aftermath of Nashville’s national-disaster flooding in 2010, which practically destroyed the Opry House.

Recognizing the importance of honoring the catastrophic nature of what happened in the Academy’s second home, Fisher also knows the significance of lifting people up. It’s a tricky balance, but as the man who studied at the Harvard Business School understands, the CBS telecast on 4/15 needs to recognize the tragedy and then honor the living.

We might as well get the hardest part out of the way. You’re going to back to a place that’s been the ACM’s home, but it’s also the site of a horrific event.
This will be our 15th year in Vegas, and it really is our home away from home. The country-music community was completely heartbroken because we are all such a tightly woven community; even the people who weren’t there felt like they were. Many of us had friends who were there or had played there. And the Vegas community has been such a supporter of country music, they really felt it too.

What are the challenges? You can’t ignore it, obviously, because you’re right where it happened. Yet it must be hard because so much has been done about it already.
All awards shows are challenged with these moments. Our job is to connect with viewers, and for us, that connection is emotion. We do that with music.

What distinguishes us from the other shows? Even though it happened in Vegas, this is our other hometown. There are no words that can be scripted. To me, it’s for the artists to connect. They do this every night; we need to give them the room to do this. They know the fans. They’ve traveled many miles to see them over many years, so we’re going to let the artists show us. We know no script is going to heal this.

Do you think there’s exhaustion from all the trauma we seem to be inflicted with on a daily basis?
Time has passed, but obviously something like this never heals. I think the show will be an instrument of healing for the Vegas community—and maybe closure for some of the artists. We want to meet people’s hearts and minds where they are at the top of the show.

And then get to the show itself, I assume.
We’re kind of country music’s away game. We’re the rowdier party, and country music does so well with the idea of the party and having fun. Vegas Goes Country includes all these ancillary events that happen all week. They’re things that comprise other aspects of who our artists are, and whether it’s the golf tournament, our beach party or this year’s first Workout for a Cause with Kelsea Ballerini and Erin Opera, we’re raising money for our Lifting Lives Foundation, which benefits so many different charities.

We’ve already given $400k worth of donations to the Vegas community over the last year. That includes a $150k donation so they can have their own Musicians On Call chapter, various local organizations that provide trauma counseling for the first responders, and others needing it. Also, we’ve given to the National Compassion Fund, with the money earmarked for Vegas. In the end, it all feeds the show. And the show will start by meeting people where their hearts and minds are.

So even in the hard stuff, you’re finding ways to create good.
At the end of the day, our mission is to grow and strengthen the industry and the artists who make this music. To me, this is all part of it.

Obviously, with so many years at the Opry, you understand artists—and how to bring them together, mix them up. Under your watch, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, Rascal Flatts and Darius Rucker were all inducted as members, even as you helped lift up outliers including David Letterman favorite Elizabeth Cook, who was practically a regular, as well as Old Crow Medicine Show, Ashley Monroe and Del McCoury. And for your very first ACM Awards built from the ground up, we see the return of Reba.
Having Reba is like working with a dear friend. Not only is she iconic in country music, but she’s a 16-time ACM Award winner. She has an illustrious career, and she’s recognized on so many levels beyond country. When you have Reba, you have the opportunity for serious reach: print, networks, international, outdoors, social and digital media, radio. And as much as I want to believe we’re pushing all the levers, this just felt meant to be—and it kicks up the show, because everyone wants to give their best when Reba’s involved.

Reba is the next-wave Dolly Parton, with movies like Tremors, Broadway with Annie Get Your Gun, her TV series and a Best Roots Gospel Grammy for an album of faith songs. Plus she’s a successful businesswoman.
They’re both first-class ladies, both consummate professionals. Reba is somebody who can read hearts, read the room and, with live TV, she knows how to take the moments and play into them. We have an unprecedented marketing relationship with CBS and our ongoing partnership with dick clark productions. Reba’s presence brings so many things—and she says yes to everything. She recognizes her role in all of this, and she has the courage to step up for whatever we ask.

Since Grammy moments became almost expect-ed, will you be creating some of those in the ACMs telecast?
Ken Ehrlich really did create something, didn’t he? We’re always looking for a way to create unique individual moments. There are now so many ways to see your favorite country star perform a song; how do we make it special? One thing I’m drawn to from my time at the Grand Ole Opry is that X factor. Those moments where one and one is five. That’s where the excitement just emerges. We can’t create it or force it. Instead, it’s trying to put things together and let them happen. Our country artists welcome artists from other genres, and it’s always been that way. They’re very inclusive, which gives us a lot of opportunities. Like Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line sing, “It was meant to be.”

But with all the controversies this year, you have to be a certain kind of mindful, right? Obviously, any time you can get Reba McEntire to host, it’s a win. But after the Lorde moment at the Grammys, how aware are you?
The fact we’re talking about equality means we’re making progress. Our nominees reflect where country music is today, and we like celebrating the whole industry. But when we look in the mirror, we don’t like what we see. Country has always been an industry of individuals who care. Good people are good people, and they aren’t afraid to listen to each other.

Diversity isn’t just a box you check. We welcome the opportunity for artists to speak their minds. We’re not going to fool ourselves and think one show can change everything. We are mindful of the gender make-up of the show. There are so many ways to embrace gender, diversity and generations.

And it’s also understanding how to build a show that reaches across so many different lines.
The television show we create is inspired by the awards nominations, but it has to deliver 10, 12 million viewers. The multigenerational aspect shows the path country music has traveled. These performers don’t forget where this music comes from, and they respect their elders for creating the music that inspires them.

So, it’s an authentic connected legacy, which helps. Reba, who connected with Lauren Alaina by phone to tell her she’s the Top New Female Vocalist, will perform with her on the show. And there will be more moments like that. We are trying to honor what country music is. Hopefully, we’re writing some new history too.

...Click here to see Gleason's interview with ACM Awards Executive Producer RAC Clark.

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