Carrying on the Live-TV Legacy

Richard Augustus Clark’s arrival in the world of music television seems inevitable. The son of America’s Oldest Teenager, RAC—as he’s known to all—cut his teeth at Pierre Cossette and Ken Ehrlich’s Grammy Awards, as well as “every other awards show out there: Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes,” to learn the business in a situation where he wasn’t the owner’s son. But that doesn’t mean the man who now executive-produces the ACM Awards never intended to come home.

In 1999, Clark did just that. Having spent three years in Nashville in the mid-’90s producing TNN’s Prime Time Country, Clark got to know the Music City players from the top down. As he notes, “A lot of the artists and executives who were just starting out are now the biggest players. But knowing them from when the stakes weren’t so high, I think there’s a level of both trust and understanding.”

With this year’s show packing 22 performances, eight out of 13 awards given on-camera and a cavalcade of hot-button issues, “Country Music’s Party of the Year” is poised to make Clark’s china anniversary one very special night. Drowning in calls, meetings and drop-ins, the very vegan producer actually took time out of a busy afternoon to talk to HITS. What was he thinking?

How are you holding up?
In general, pretty crazy; with the show, pretty calm. We’re less than three weeks to the show, two weeks to loading in in Vegas, but it feels good. Lots of elements coming together, from scenery to lighting, sound to screens. It’s pretty intense—but it’s clicking.

That’s a lot to get in alignment.
I’ve got some amazing support from Co-Executive Producer Raj Kapoor and Talent Producer Patrick Menton on the actual creation of all the elements, the looks. Barry Adelman, who’s been with the show even longer than I have, brings the writing together in a way that really stands out, really leans into these artists. And I’m in the trenches more now than in the past. It’s such a tightly knit group, we can deal with things on the fly, which lets us really be in the moment.

You came up working on some of the biggest shows out there, plus you did Prime Time Country for three years. That’s really in the trenches.
I was in the era of Doug Supernaw and Daryle Singletary, artists a lot of people don’t remember, but they were real characters. I got to work with Chet Atkins, and through him I met Steve Wariner, Bryan White, Marty Stuart and all these guitar virtuosos. Marty was the touchstone to Flatt & Scruggs, and that showed me how to keep the history vital.

With everything that’s happened this year, between #MeToo and #TimesUp and the mass shooting at the Route 91 Festival, this could end up being a historic ACM Awards.
We’ve had many long discussions about this. Ignore? Acknowledge? Everything in between too. And I think we’ve found a way to address what happened respectfully and honestly. It’s important. But I also think we all need to get back to the music. We are the Las Vegas country-music awards show, so getting the tone right is important. How often should we bring it up without it beating people over the head? Is it an overarching theme of the night? Because the CMAs, the AMAs and the Grammys have all done their thing—plus all the other tragedies—and it’s easy to put a damper on the music and people you’re there to honor.

Reba’s back.
She sure is.

Is it cynical to say that’s a nod to parity?
We wanted to make a change, and we thought, let’s get back to a female host this year. And when you do that, who’s better than Reba? Having her back helps tremendously, because she is known in so many worlds. Yes, she’s a well-respected country icon, but her series was huge, she’s done Broadway, she’s in Vegas with Brooks & Dunn, she’s been around rodeo, all her charity work.

And she has a big personality.
I love live television. I love the stress of it, the putting-out-a-newspaper kind of deadline reality where you have to make it work. If you want a partner, someone who is so good at that kind of step-in-front-of-the-camera-and-make-it-work-no-matter-what, Reba’s the best. She makes this into some kind of great barrel-racing run.

There will probably grumbling about the five awards given off-camera. You know, is this an awards show or a music show?
Twenty-two performances, eight awards—you tell me. Yes, we are a music show, both because it’s what we’re here to honor, and because this approach really lends itself to some great performances.

How are you facing the world of non-sales but mountains of streams?
Me, personally? I feel it has to pop on your television. People consuming and streaming is great, but that’s audio. Television requires so much more; it’s a whole other dimension—and you can’t lose sight of that. If it doesn’t work visually, then I’m letting those songs down if we can’t match what’s on the track. Getting people—artists, managers, agents, label executives, publicists—to understand you can’t just stand there is sometimes tricky. But it’s not as bad as having to explain to them why tune-in dropped off during their performance.

You always hear complaints about too much unfamiliar music.
That’s a big debate too. More familiar music versus something brand new. I think it comes down to something pretty simple: Will that new song draw people out of curiosity? Do they want to hear that song debuted, or are we better off with a song people know and want to see? We also get into the ballad quandary. Everyone wants to sing slow songs, and we have to be mindful of the pacing of the show.

The Academy has always been more of the outlier in terms of music. Does that give you more freedom?
You have to remember, the Academy is from the culture of the West Coast country scene. It’s Bakersfield, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam and any number of offshoots from that Outlaw brand that came out of Texas. You mix that Bakersfield sound with Hollywood, you’re gonna get something a little flashy, a little harder-hitting. And the ACMs have always been a little more forward-leaning.

Look at New Artists. The Academy is the only show that gives three different newcomer awards: Male, Female and Duo/Group. That’s really the lifeblood of any genre, and we try to get them on TV, get them exposed and give them an injection of sizzle.

You really do love music, don’t you?
When I was seven, I saw The Beatles in Atlantic City. I was on the Steel Pier, which was then the premier place to watch music. I had plugs in my ears and sang along over the screaming; I could only hear bass and drums, but it was… My father had somehow got me into the press conference. I’m in the front row, and my memory is of John Lennon winking at me throughout the entire thing. I was in awe. It was dated Aug. 29, 1964; my mom found a postcard from some motel we’d stayed at, signed “Love, Dickie.”

I got every 45 and every record that ever played on [American] Bandstand. Dad would give them to me after the show, so I breathed music and the people who make it, and the way records move you. That’s why I love music.

Pretty incredible. Does anything beyond music stand out?
I did The $10,000 Pyramid, but with John Davidson, not my dad, as host. So I learned to love game shows, talk shows and telethons. I worked on the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon from Vegas for many years. One of my favorite memories was being Jerry Lewis’ stage manager one year. He could be difficult, but he knew my legacy—and because of my heritage, I understood to treat him just like Dad. Just tell him where to stand, what time to come in.

I grew up on the Telethon, so I was truly freaking out. The only other experience close to that was pro-ducing the Beatles special with Ken [Ehrlich] for CBS after the Grammys. Getting to work with Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr? After what I just told you, and having them like it? There are no words, except “Wow.” Ringo was teasing me that we should be a duo: Rac & Ringo. He thought about it, then said, “No, Ringo & Rac—I go first.” [chuckles] Hey, I’ll take second billing to a Beatle any day.

...Click here to see Gleason's interview with ACM Chief Pete Fisher.

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