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And, not incidentally, more people, inside the auditoriums or hovering just out of sight. Last fall’s show proceeded without any semblance of a live audience at any of the locales; at the Opry House, the prime location, LED lighting spread across the seats created a warm glow that the absence of bodies couldn’t. And nominees will be in sight in the house as their categories come up, too. But there won’t be commingling. The vaccinated audiences of invited medical workers will be socially distanced in the sizable balconies of both the Ryman and Opry House. On the floor of the latter, nominees will be rotated in and out as their shots at winning arrive, And never the twain shall meet. So, think: a live crowd of frontline workers, a la the Golden Globes, but moved up to the mezzanine; and a limited number of masked nominees, a la the Grammys, except cycled through even more quickly than the Recording Academy rushed anybody in or out. “The ACM and ACM Lifting Lives (the org’s charitable arm) have a longtime partnership with Vanderbilt,” Whiteside says, “and so we worked with them early on to determine a path to have an audience. They consulted us on it, but we also wanted to just thank them for all they’ve done for us through the pandemic, so the audiences will consist of fully vaccinated Vanderbilt medical staff. Jeep Hawaiian Shirt

Being that they’re fully vaccinated, there isn’t a risk to any crew or anyone in the building. But we’re still going to be keeping them separated, and they’ll have separate entrances and exits so that our crew and our artists will never be anywhere near the audience and we can assure them there won’t any safety concerns at all. “And then the artists that are nominees will be seated on the floor at the Opry House, masked and socially distanced, too. We’re only going to allow five nominees at a time; as the award category comes up, those nominees will be allowed in the audience, but again, social distanced, and they must wear a mask.” Even with the tiered separation between floor, “at least it’s an opportunity to have that fan response and artists will be able to have some of that interaction with the fans up in the balcony. We think it’s a step closer toward normalcy.” Jeep Hawaiian Shirt  Some might even say these steps are going the extra mile, with everyone in the house being vaccinated, freshly tested or both. But setting the right example is also paramount, and as another production, the CMA Awards, learned in November, a show can come in for a lot of heat if nominees are seen in unmasked groups in the audience on camera, no matter how much producers reinforce in interviews that strict protocols were in place off-camera. “We definitely have watched every single awards show and have tried to learn where possible,” says Whiteside. “So, sure, we’re uber-sensitive about perceptions out there, so we’re doing everything we can to ensure that it’s just as safe as possible and that the optics are right. We really don’t want to give that perception out there to the public that we’re being negligent about it. That’s especially because, in the show, ACM Lifting Lives is going to be announcing and premiering a new PSA spot that we partnered with the Ad Council, with Eric Church, Ashley McBryde and Darius Rucker, that’s about vaccine education. So we’re really trying to be at the forefront of putting an end to this pandemic and educating fans about it, and part of that is that we have to walk the talk and ensure we’re enforcing safety at all times.”

With all that being said, Whiteside is not shy about saying that, while there will be a few nods to the pandemic and its effects during the three-hour telecast, the mood of the show will be very much about the perceived light at the end of the tunnel, not the tunnel. As proof of just how un-sober this year’s ACMs might be, the opening blowout number will be the not-so-solemn “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home),” from the team of Miranda Lambert and Elle King. Other changes this spring from last fall’s show include the addition of Mickey Guyton as a co-host for Urban, and the just announced addition of three more locales on top of the three already established landmarks. Lady A will  perform amid the neon of the tourist strip that is Lower Broadway in Nashville’s downtown. Another performance will take place in the city’s riverside park, with the Nashville skyline lit up in gold behind. And the action will move to the Station Inn, an acoustic/bluegrass club, for Dierks Bentley and the duo the War and Treaty to sing U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love).” The Station Inn was also featured on the Grammys, with owner JT Gray being featured on that telecast days before he died. “it’s a way to really honor him and honor independent venues” affected by the pandemic, Whiteside says. On last year’s show, nearly all the performances at the three venues were pre-taped in the hours, days or weeks leading up to the broadcast — something that went little noticed by fans, but did at least lead to educated guessing games among industry-savvy pros about which few numbers were being done in real time. (A moving duet between Urban and Guyton was one of them.) The pandemic has offered either the necessity or the excuse, depending on your viewpoint, of putting more things in the can ahead of time, as seen on the Grammys, where nearly every performance was filmed in advance. Whiteside is among those who think home viewers really don’t notice or care as long as everything feels live — though he says that most of the numbers will be back to being live-live this Sunday.





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