For 15 out of the last 16 years, the Academy of Country Music Awards have taken place in Las Vegas. The days leading up to the show, held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, are dubbed “The Week Vegas Goes Country” and include multiple concerts around the Las Vegas Strip.
This year, of course, the location takes on a new significance as the ACM Awards are set to air Sunday night: It’s the same place a gunman shot and killed 58 concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest festival in October, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Jason Aldean, nominated for two ACM Awards, was on stage when the gunfire started, and myriad others who witnessed the violence will be back in Las Vegas for the first time this weekend.
Producers and organizers are acutely aware of the sensitive nature of this year’s show and, for months, have grappled with how to handle the event.
“It takes a lot of courage and commitment for the artists and industry, many of whom were there that night on those festival grounds dodging bullets, to return to Las Vegas,” said Pete Fisher, ACM chief executive officer. “It’s going to be quite an emotional return and we applaud those in our industry who are standing strong and coming back.”
Fisher said after the shooting, some involved with the ACM Awards wondered whether they should keep the ceremony in its original location or go somewhere else for 2018.
“It certainly was contemplated, but no one was speaking up saying we had to move. In fact, just about the opposite happened,” Fisher said. “As difficult it will be for some people, everyone wanted to come back to Vegas.”
He added, “Moving the show out of Las Vegas this year would have just really felt like an abandonment, and, in a sense, like hate won.”
Since the tragedy, Fisher said, ACM’s charitable arm (ACM Lifting Lives) has donated $400,000 to charities to help the victims and their families, as well as first responders. The show will also feature a tribute to the victims of the horrific attack.
And given that it’s a celebratory telecast, Fisher said he hopes the ACM Awards can also serve as a distraction for people who need it. After the tribute, he said, the show will “move to a spirit of hope and healing and into a lot of fun.”
Reba McEntire will serve as host, replacing Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley (McEntire previously hosted the show for years). The ceremony currently has more than 20 country singers lined up to perform, such Carrie Underwood, making her first public appearance since she was injured last year in a bad fall; Kenny Chesney, likely performing new single “Get Along” about the current culture’s tough climate; along with pop star and “The Voice” coach Kelly Clarkson.
Fisher knows that every year, some country music fans complain about pop singers taking time away from country stars at country award shows — but those appearances can end up being the highlight of the night, such as the Backstreet Boys in 2017.
“Our goal is not only to entertain country music’s large fan base but also to welcome new fans into the format,” Fisher said. “Our mission is to strengthen and grow country music. And so what better way to create a memorable moment than to kind of mash up a country music superstar with a pop star?”
Other performers will include Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Florida Georgia Line, Keith Urban, Kelsea Ballerini and Aldean. During a recent interview with Taste of Country, Aldean explained why he felt the ACM Awards were the right time to go to Las Vegas again after the Route 91 festival.
“If we’re going to go back, I think the ACMs are the place to go back and be,” Aldean said. “Because you’re surrounded by all your friends and artists and everybody who is there, and you kind of feel like you have a support system.”