After a brutal month in Nashville, country stars try to 'bring people comfort' with a night of music Sunday
In early March, tornadoes tore through middle Tennessee, killing 25 people. Buildings and homes in Nashville were destroyed. The very next day, residents and the town's music stars joined to contribute to relief efforts, help raise money and plan benefit concerts. Although the damage was hard to absorb, the city tried to start the process of recovery.
Then, the following week, the coronavirus pandemic started forcing people to quarantine. Businesses were shuttered, tours were postponed, and thousands in Nashville's close-knit music scene were out of work. Once again, the community banded together, and multiple funds were started to help those in the industry. But the brutal past month has taken its toll.
"It was a one-two punch," Damon Whiteside, chief executive officer of the Academy of Country Music, said in an interview from Nashville. Given that so many people in town are connected to the music business, envisioning the future has been unnerving. "I'm not sure we fully have our arms around it. ... I don't think we really understand the long-term impact. It's really devastating."
The ACM Awards, one of the genre's biggest events, was scheduled to air April 5; it's now on hold until the fall. When the show was postponed, Whiteside said, producers started brainstorming another special for the same night, to try to maintain some aspect of normalcy and offer a brief distraction from the news. But they wondered whether a TV show could strike the right tone at this moment, or if anyone would want to try.
"Could we get 20 of the biggest artists in country music to deliver a common message and common thread for two hours that would hold up on broadcast TV?" said Jack Sussman, CBS's executive vice president of specials and live events. "How can you create an event for TV in today's world and the situation that we're in right now?"
When producers reached out to see if singers would be interested, they were inundated with responses. The result was "ACM Presents: Our Country," a two-hour special that airs at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 5, on CBS, starring Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, Kelsea Ballerini, Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani and more.
"You can always count on the country community to come together in a time of need and bring people comfort," said Mark Bracco, executive vice president of programming and development at Dick Clark Productions. "Everybody said yes, and we just started working on it really fast."
Using iPhones and iPads, and the help of family members, the stars filmed themselves singing in homes and on back porches. Some acts, such as Florida Georgia Line and Lady Antebellum, feature their kids. Brad Paisley and Darius Rucker used FaceTime to sing together, as did John Legend and Kane Brown.
While some decided to sing current singles, many artists went with older hits that were meaningful and poignant to fans, Whiteside said. (There's also a Kenny Rogers tribute.) Artists were given few guidelines, except to choose a song that felt appropriate for the time. They all interpreted the instructions in different ways.
"What you see in this show is how talented they are without the need for oversize production -- there's no pyro, no dancers," Sussman said. "This is raw, stripped down, and comes from the heart."
Country singers are always encouraged to be accessible and relatable, and as a result, often have a unique relationship with listeners. And the chance to see them perform at home with their families will only add to that, Whitehall said.
"Ultimately, the fans will feel entertained, but also it's an escape for a couple of hours," Whitehall added. "It's very uplifting and empowering. We're very much a community within country music, and I don't think anyone can say it better than a country artist."