On Sunday night (April 15), some of the biggest stars in country music will gather in Las Vegas for the 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards. Billboard attended rehearsals for the show, which airs on CBS at 8 p.m. ET live from the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and talked with several artists about the event, their performance, and how this year will be unlike any other.
On what makes the ACM Awards so special:
Jason Aldean: It’s Vegas. There’s just something that seems really cool about the show. It’s not stiff, it’s a little looser. You’re close to L.A., so you never know who’s going to show up. It could be anybody. It’s always cool for me to be like, “There’s Matthew McConaughey, there’s Vince Vaughan!” I’ve met a lot of people out here like that and become friends with some of them. You never know who you’re going to run into out here.
Thomas Rhett: There’s a part of me that feels like it’s more of a laid-back environment. Even getting dressed for it, I feel like I can be a little bit looser and wear some different stuff. When you get in here, the environment is very relaxed and everybody has a great tension-free time. The ACMs have always been one of my favorite times of the year.
Dierks Bentley: Vegas is important. I got engaged here. I met my wife here at a George Strait concert. I’ve had a lot of personal attachment to Vegas.
On the ACMs being the first major country event in Las Vegas since the Oct. 1 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival:
Aldean: It’s always going to be a little strange coming here, but I was excited to come here for the ACMs and be here with all my buddies and hang out with the country music community. I think coming back as part of a collective unit with the country music industry obviously makes it a little easier.
Rhett: It’s very different this year. When I was walking up to talk to [festival survivors who attended Rhett’s rehearsal], I was like, “What do I say that they haven’t heard a hundred times?” Do you sit there and say, “we’re praying for you,” that kind of thing? I was just loving listening to them. It’s obviously very sad but so many of them were saying… that the incident united so many people and that love prevailed through all of that darkness. I can’t even imagine what was in their heads so getting to be there and hang with them for a second and getting to hear their stories was such a highlight for me.
Darius Rucker: The award show is great, but this one being the first time we’ve been here since October is even more special. I wasn’t [at Route 91], but Jason [Aldean’s] one of my best friends. I know a bunch of guys who were there. There’s no one in Nashville who didn’t know someone who was there. We want to come here and honor those folks who were affected by it. It’s such a sad thing, but we need to come back and show we’re country strong. Vegas is Vegas strong. We’re not going to let stuff like that stop us from being the best we can be.
Bentley: The ACMs are known for being the funnest award show. We all come to Vegas to party. How do we still do that with honoring these fans and their families? Reba [McEntire] is the perfect person to host because she’s funny, she knows how to work a room, she’s a professional actress, but she has a warm embrace. She’s the queen in some ways, she’s a steady hand on the tiller as we go through a turbulent time here… This is a great way to test the scene for what the ACMs is going to be because it can’t go back to what it was before… when we’re a couple hundred yards away from one of the worst mass shootings in the history of this country. We need to find a way to have fun, but reflect on what is still a recent situation for a lot of our fans.
On their ACM Awards performance:
Rhett: With “Marry Me,”I just wanted to tell the story of what I think my life would have been like had I not had the confidence to walk up to [wife] Lauren and tell her that I’ve basically been in love with her since church camp in seventh grade.
Miranda Lambert: It’s just time for me to do “Keeper of the Flame.” It’s an ending for the journey of this record and a journey of my life the last three years. The sentiment is these amazing women — any of your heroes — blazed a trail. I’m wearing a Jessi Colter shirt. I’m playing a guitar signed by Loretta Lynn. I’m thinking about how the reason I can even stand here and talk to you is because these women were brave. I want people to understand the intent of the song: it’s not about my getting some glory. It’s about how I can’t believe I get to hold the torch right now, but I can’t wait to pass it on. I’m really just humbled to be here and be doing this career and living my dream and it’s because of other women.
Rucker: It’s the first time I’m playing “For the First Time” on a TV show. It’s great playing for your peers. You listen to the radio and you know what the songs are like, but you don’t ever get to see them play live except for at these shows. Trying to impress them is always a good thing. You look down and see someone on their phone (laughs).
Bentley: “Woman, Amen” [is] a personal love song. It’s a song about my wife. With this performance [which highlights several inspiring women]… I just want to find a way to use social media to dig deeper. We’ve been using social media to hear stories… These are stories across the country of a grandmother that raised you or a daughter that made a difference in your life. All submitted through social media and we sifted through and picked a handful that will be on stage through video with me tonight.
Rhett [up for six awards]: I will take any, but album of the year is the grail, other than entertainer. Entertainer is on my bucket list one day.
Lambert [Up for four awards, including ninth consecutive female vocalist]: “I have butterflies [when the best female vocalist winner is announced]. It’s hard and it’s not for the faint of heart and any of us deserve to win. I say Carrie Underwood is one of the greatest singers of all time and she’s a friend. I’m a huge fan of Maren [Morris], everybody in the category. I’m excited to still be in the category. I feel like it’s really people validating what you’re doing, it’s “we see you,” but it’s all right if I don’t win.
On No Female Artist Being Nominated For Entertainer of theYear:
Lambert: Yeah, I’m sick of that shit. I’ve been entertaining my ass off for years, so’s Carrie, so I’m pretty ready for that to change. I was hoping they would let me present that award so I could say something about that, but I don’t think they’re going to let me. I think Carrie and I should just run up there and start dancing. We’ll get it fixed. I’m just going to keep my nose to the grindstone till it changes.