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THE INSIDE STORY BEHIND ACM'S OUR COUNTRY

When the rumbling started to tumble into tour cancellations, Academy of Country Music CEO Damon Whiteside, CBS EVP of Specials Jack Sussman and producer Rac Clark knew they needed to get creative. The 55th annual ACM Awards—slated to air live on CBS from Las Vegas on 4/5—faced unknown questions and seemingly imminent shelter-in-place orders. So everyone knew the West Coast country organization’s often groundbreaking awards telecast would be impossible to do “the usual way.”

“It started as ‘Could we do it without an audience?’,” remembers Whiteside. “But that required traveling. We asked, ‘Should we pick another venue? Something smaller, with just the artists?’ Then, ‘Could we do it digitally? Go live to the artists, but that would mean people in their space.’ It was tricky.”

Clark and co-producer Patrick Menton kept making calls, conversing with managers, label heads, artists. Ultimately, an off-handed comment from Maverick’s Clarence Spalding sparked ACM Presents: Our Country. Designed to celebrate the artistry, authenticity and connection between the artists and the people who love this music, he suggested showing ACM Awards clips.  Clark then wondered about marrying them to intimate iPhone performances.

“The idea was simple,” Clark explains. “We’re all sitting at home; we’re all in this together. The opportunity for realizing the same collective experience everyone’s feeling—it’s Jungian. We’re having this moment that will probably only happen one time in human history, and we (the artists) want you to know you’re not alone.”


Once the decision was made—“Jack Sussman was in it with us through all the crazy ideas,” Whiteside marvels—they had a little more than two weeks to get asks out, instructions shared, tech requirements sorted, clips uploaded and a running order done. With one editor, one supervisor, one edit bay—all socially distanced, of course—what was stunning was the stars’ willingness to strip down musically. Whiteside says, “They blew us away with what they delivered. It’s so raw and real, and they brought us into their personal space with no production, no filters.” Three days after the calls went out, Miranda Lambert plopped down on her front porch, hair in a ponytail and spoke, then sang into her iPad. The clips kept coming. More than 100 artists asked to be part of this groundbreaking event where the production merges new shot-to cellphone or tablet performances with historic ACM Awards clips.

Kelsea Ballerini. Dierks Bentley. Kane Brown and John Legend. Luke Bryan. Luke Combs. Sheryl Crow. Florida Georgia Line. Lady Antebellum. Tim McGraw. Thomas Rhett. Shania Twain. Twenty-five artists, 21 performances, including a special tribute to Kenny Rogers. (The ACM Awards will now air live on Wednesday, 9/16.)

“It’s interesting,” says dick clark productions’ EVP of Programming and Development Mark Bracco. “The audience is used to big, splashy awards performances with the pyro, the bells and whistles, the glitter, but every year, we have those intimate moments—like Ashley McBryde last year—and it works. Only now, it’s two hours devoted to that.” Those two hours may be some of the most powerful programming country fans have had access to this year. For a genre where the latest technology isn’t de rigeur, and SiriusXM is a luxury often forgone, having 25 country stars beaming into their living room on a good old-fashioned television may be the most normalizing event for the next few months.

Eric Church is a man of few words,” Clark says, trying to define the show’s power. “But he was so eloquent, so spot-on for this moment. I can’t wait for people to hear it, because it was one of the first one’s in, and when I saw it, I knew we were headed in the right direction.”

“”The idea of bringing these artists together, not just for this moment in time, but especially this moment in time, I’d put these artists and what they mean up against any artist in any genre anywhere.

Carrie Underwood opens her mouth, and that power. Little Big Town manage to create those harmonies through cell phone cameras. You have Brandi Carlile sitting at a 100-year-old piano, talking about it being out of tune; Brad Paisley in the bed of his truck facetiming with Darius Rucker on his porch in South Carolina. It’s comfort, with maybe a little bit of joy.” Journalist Gayle King is the host. “Gayle is a wonderful, comforting presence,” Sussman adds. “She’s a country music fan. She’s unfiltered and she’s the perfect gateway.”

Bobby Bones’ will be introducing the ACM’s Lifting Lives COVID-19 Fund to further support member of the country music community caught in the same out-of-work spiral music of the nation is facing. And on top of the show, another 10-12 performances and interviews will be broadcast on the website, ACMOurCountry.com.

“Despite all the craziness, I feel so pumped,” Whiteside says. “Our entire music community is learning to operate in a new way, and I’m so proud of how the artists, the labels, their teams came to the table. We didn’t script the artists, didn’t tell them what to say or perform, but gave them a platform to express what they’re going through, their uncertainties and their hope.

“So many expressed they’re very grateful to the healthcare community for putting their lives in the line of this disease, to the first responders. It’s amazing, to me, the way no community comes together like this one. They came, and wanted to do something meaningful. And they did.”

Sussman concurs. “This is a great opportunity that shows the true power of a creative idea executed. It was very much creative adaptability, and the power of network tv to be the big tent where everyone can come in. Having seen these performances, I hope they will.”

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