Interview by Holly Gleason

When Damon Whiteside became CEO of the Academy of Country Music in January 2020, he was a fast-track CMO from the Country Music Association following stints at ABC/Disney, Disney Consumer Products and his own branding and content firm, Nomad Entertainment. He could scarcely have imagined that a global pandemic would shortly upend the 2020 ACM Awards telecast, that the live-music industry would face a devastating blow as a result of said pandemic or that social unrest would fundamentally change the national conversation about race.

Thankfully, Whiteside knows how to adapt. Half-joking about canceling a sold-out Las Vegas MGM Grand production to free-fall into the unknown, he—along with the folks at Dick Clark Productions, CBSJack Sussman and longtime Executive Producer RAC Clark—made lemons into limoncello with the direct-from-the-artists’-hearts Our Country special, which aired in the awards 4/5 “hole,” drawing more than 7 million viewers on its first airing and over 10 million with a subsequent showing. It did better than any awards show last year besides the Grammys, which preceded COVID.
Then, in September, Whiteside and Co. came to Nashville to at last mount the 2020 ACM Awards, which became the first awards show back on the air.

As criticism of “country so white/country so male” has reached new heights, the ACM ballot for 2021 is historically “woke.” The Academy has a reputation for blazing trails, and Whiteside takes pride in the unprecedented diversity of this year’s slate of nominees and voters. Keith Urban returns as host; Mickey Guyton—whose performance last year of “What Are You Going to Tell Her?” produced one of the show’s most powerful moments—will cohost.

The 56th Academy of Country Music Awards will be broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry House, the Bluebird Café and Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Sunday, 4/18, at 8pm ET on CBS and streamed on Paramount+.

Were you surprised by this year’s ballot?
It is a really unique ballot. Single of the Year didn’t fully hit me at first, but when I went back, I realized it’s all women, despite how hard a time they have at radio. But our voters responded to those incredible records.

And several of those women are first-time nominees.
Gabby Barrett with “I Hope,” Ingrid Andress with “More Hearts Than Mine” and Carly Pearce and Lee Brice with “I Hope You’re Happy Now.”

Album of the Year has three first-time nominees, too.
Kane Brown, Ashley McBryde and Brothers Osborne. And they all made unique projects, as did Chris Stapleton, one of our leading nominees, and Luke Bryan.

Stapleton and Maren Morris with six nominations each and Miranda Lambert with five… Overall, this is a very strong field.
It really is, and Carly having her first Female Artist of the Year too. A lot of breakthroughs. We have Black nominees in Best New Artist with Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton…

Four Black artists were nominated, including John Legend with Carrie Underwood in Music Event of the Year for “Hallelujah” and Kane Brown in Album and Video.
Two of the nominated video directors are also Black

Still, Carrie Underwood, reigning co-Entertainer of the Year, is not up for that honor but co-Entertainer Thomas Rhett is, in what’s an all-male category.
I did expect to see Carrie, with her Christmas album and special on HBO Max… Miranda, too; she also deserved to be in there. From a presence perspective, they’ve both been out there, very vocal, very visible. But the five who were nominated? They have been too. It’s surprising, sometimes, how the votes go.

The Academy’s always had a maverick reputation. The CMAs are more traditional.
Yes, we tend to have artists on our show early in their careers and deliver their first nominations. Look at this year.

Why do you think that is?
Well, we’re based on the West Coast, and the spirit of the organization, especially from the ’60s, was a little more renegade, a little more out of the box. So our history and, as a result, our attitude and decisions lean that way. Maybe it’s a cultural difference. Maybe it’s how people see us. To be progressive is part of our mission. Our board members are very aware of being at the forefront, and I think that carries over to the rank-and-file members and how we produce the show. I have to give props to RAC Clark, our Executive Producer, who’s done this show for years and works hard to identify who’s on the horizon.

Obviously, things are evolving, but for the moment you’re keeping the same COVID protocols as last year, right?
Yes. Safety is our priority.

Is that why you’re returning to Nashville?

We have a template here now. We had to figure out a new model last year, and not having people traveling was a big piece of that. But we also got to go to three of the most important venues in the history of country music. Plus, we loved our partners at the Opry, the Bluebird Café and Ryman Auditorium. Everything at the Ryman had to be taped last year, however; this year we’re hoping to be live from all three venues.

We’re also hoping to have all the nominees there, but we’re still evaluating whether we can have a live audience. We’re working with the city and state on that determination. With the Johnson & Johnson vaccine approved, things could look different in a few weeks. It would be nice to have a real audience, with whatever limitations, but again: safety first. Our partners at Dick Clark Productions are über-safe, too, so that helps.

Taking care of the community has also been a priority for you.
It has. The Academy’s philanthropic arm, ACM Lifting Lives, put our COVID Response Fund in place, and we’ve raised—and paid out—over $3.5 million dollars directly to people in country music; we’re dedicated solely to country-music professionals. So far, we’ve reached people in 42 states. Our people are feeling it, and we’re trying to help.

And taking formal action on diversity.
Diversity and inclusion have been drivers since before my arrival at the Academy. Just a couple of examples: One of our head writers, Amberia Allen, who is Black, wrote for Keith Urban last year; they got along so well that she’s returning. And we have a new [yet to be announced] director, from Univision, an Emmy winner for his work with the Latin Grammys; this will be his first country awards show. Obviously, we want diverse presenters and performers as well. Our goal is equal female-to-male representation, more people of color and more LGBTQ participants. We’re looking at all people.

This has been a particularly challenging time for country music.
We had to make a tough decision with Morgan Wallen [who was disqualified from ACM Awards contention for his use of a racial slur]. We want everyone on the show to feel comfortable and welcome; we were thinking about the other artists who’d be on the ballot with him, because he would’ve been nominated in several categories. We have to think of our organization and country music as a whole. The decision to exclude Morgan wasn’t arbitrary, and it wasn’t disciplinary. That’s not what we do. It was a corrective action. He’s a bright presence musically, and I think we all hope he’s going to come back better and even brighter.

We know our artist community needs support and resources. They’re not getting coaching or the opportunity to just share their feelings in a safe space. We’re trying to fill the gap; we’re going to be announcing diversity training based on what our task force has put in place over the last 18 months, diversity sensitivity training for our board, our staff and the members, as well as our artists.

It’s been a crazy 18 months for you, hasn’t it?
Everything that’s happened has pushed us all to our limits. But it’s also taught us how to adapt, seek solutions and create opportunities. We’ve dealt with the pandemic, are helping our members who need financial assistance and are creating new conversations about equality. It’s amazing. I’ll look back in a few years and everything will seem so normal by comparison. At least that’s what I’m hoping for.

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