Having just come off the Grammy Awards, CBS EVP, Specials, Music & Live Events Jack Sussman is shoulder-deep in the 56th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, to be broadcast live on 4/18 from the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium and Bluebird Café in Nashville.

It’s been a year since the awards were forced to move off their 4/5 2020 date—and out of Las Vegas. Ultimately broadcasting the from-the-home/from-the-heart ACM Presents: Our Country special in its place, CBS, Dick Clark Productions and the Academy netted the single-largest viewership for a special—7 million on initial airing, more than 10 million with a repeat—in 2020 after the pre-COVID Grammys.

The 2020 ACM Awards did not appear until 9/16. It set the precedent for broadcasting from the Opry, Ryman and Bluebird, with no audience in attendance.

If there’s a whiff of Groundhog Day to this year’s show, Sussman isn’t concerned. Indeed, the sometime Tulane University Executive in Residence seems invigorated stepping into last year’s footprint, the COVID-era format no longer a potential distraction from his unflagging belief in what country music delivers.

Does it feel as if nothing’s changed?
Well, all the artists want to participate; they aren’t as hesitant as last year. But of course they and their managers have been clear: It has to be safe. There are still so many unknowns that the decision was made to fully maintain last year’s safety protocols, which were put in place to protect everybody, in front of and behind the camera. No one wants to take chances, not the artists and not the camera people, the stagehands or anyone else involved in this show.

Any particular unknowns keeping you up nights?
Everyone who works in production lives with the reality that inevitably, the phone’s going to ring and you have to be prepared to deal with whatever the issue is. If last year taught us anything, it’s that you can’t always anticipate what’s going to come up.

Do the COVID protocols complicate the challenge of standing out in what can sometimes feel like a glut of awards shows?
Yes, we’re giving out awards, and maybe too many awards shows are mediocre, but they’re called “specials” for a reason; we’re making an event for television people can’t see anywhere else and which hopefully inspires them to embrace this music. It’s very exciting for the artists and their fans, and I love honoring them this way. So for me, it comes down to creativity. Obviously, awards shows are more challenging for everyone these days, but that can make them more interesting because everyone knows they have to bring their A game, really tap into their creativity.

What we’re focused on is coming up with ways to honor the artist’s vision, what they want to do, how we can stage that, which venue—we want to be live from all three this year and traffic is an issue—how that impacts the flow of the show.

We need it to have a beginning, a middle and an end. We want to tell the story of country music this year, reflect what happened. So there are a lot of balls in the air.

What story stands out most for you?
I’m very much intrigued by Single of the Year—all the nominees are women. Regardless of what Country radio may want to play, the cream rose to the top. Single is a great story about where country music actually is, how people feel about the music. We’re doing a TV show reflecting what seems to matter.

Diversity seems to matter.
Right—look at the nominations. Mickey Guyton has been on our show the last two years; we love her. Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown are both nominated. And that great country artist John Legend! Hopefully, with this show, people will recognize these artists as more than just a voice on the radio, will feel their charisma and maybe dig a little deeper into their journey.

Keep the big tent open, I say. Regardless of race, gender or who you happen to be sleeping with, come on in. Bring your best. We’re waiting for you with open arms. We need to support all artists, make them feel welcome and part of the community.

Artists do tend to bring their best to the show.
It’s really not the size of the production; again, it’s the degree of creativity. An artist’s vision and the producer and director’s ability to translate that is what’s important. It doesn’t require pyro, bells and whistles, smoke, 3-D projections or 50 dancers; it requires art that translates and holds people.

That certainly held true with Our Country.
That was the first incarnation of event television in the time of COVID and a stepping-stone to where we are now. A lot has happened; many things have changed. But the idea of these shows hasn’t: Honor the artists and the work, and make great television whatever the circumstances.

How do you see the ACMs fitting into the larger awards-show ecosystem?
After the Oscars, the Grammys and the Emmys, it’s right up there, though perhaps I’m biased. I should mention, though, that single-genre shows draw very passionate, committed fans, but a portion of our audience doesn’t know the difference between the ACMs and the CMAs; one is always just “the other country-music awards show.”

That said, the CMA show is more traditional; we’re a little looser. It is the same pool of people and material being considered for these awards, but we’re more outside the box. Artists will do things a little more unconventional and risky here. You’ll have Carrie Underwood singing with Steven Tyler. You’ll have Katy Perry coming to party with Dolly Parton. Or the year we closed with Stevie Wonder, because who doesn’t love Stevie Wonder? People were up and dancing—that’s what music does.