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ACM Awards bring country music back near Las Vegas site of shooting rampage

ACM Awards bring country music back near Las Vegas site of shooting rampage
Luke Bryan, left, Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, Maren Morris, and Thomas Rhett give a tribute to the Las Vegas shooting victims at Sunday night's ACM Awards. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — Country singer Jason Aldean is an old hand at awards shows by now, a regular presence among nominees at the annual Grammys, Country Music Assn. and Academy of Country Music ceremonies where he's piled up dozens of awards and nominations over the years.

But it's safe to say that the musician from Macon, Ga., has never experienced a more emotionally packed night than Sunday's ACM Awards in Las Vegas — nor one where that emotion had so little to do with who won what.

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Aldean, along with dozens of his country music peers, gathered in the same city where 58 music fans were killed and hundreds more injured while he was on stage in October at the Route 91 Harvest Festival of country music.

They assembled for Sunday's ceremonies at the MGM Grand, a short distance from where a shooter emptied one ammunition magazine after another while firing more than 1,100 rounds from the window of his 32nd-floor Mandalay Bay hotel room into a crowd massed in an open lot across the street.

The show began on a somber note, with Aldean emerging out of darkness to say, "We thought about opening with a song, but this is bigger than a song."

He was then joined by singers Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Maren Morris and Thomas Rhett each speaking briefly about the power of music to heal and the strength of the country music fans and musicians coming together as a community in the wake of the shooting. Kenny Chesney followed with a song, "Get Along," that extended the message of people coming together.

Most artists entering the MGM Grand Garden Arena were wearing one of two gold lapel pins: a "58" for the number of people killed last October, or "851" for the number that were injured.

"It's in everybody's hearts," singer Brantley Gilbert said on his way into the arena. "It's the elephant in the room."

Country music historically has given voice to the harsh realities of human experience, although in recent years, mainstream hits have skewed heavily toward celebrating good times.

That attitude is reflected in the ACM's slogan for its annual awards gathering, "Country music's party of the year," a theme that understandably had been downplayed this year — but not entirely abandoned — in the run-up to Sunday's show, broadcast live on CBS.

"Although on the surface [that slogan] may appear to be kind of at odds with what happened, it gave us pause to think about how we continue this great tradition of having fun here in one of the great entertainment destinations, Las Vegas, while still recognizing and honoring victims, the survivors, their families and the first responders," ACM CEO Pete Fisher said.

"Our hearts were broken when the tragedy occurred," he added. "As an industry, we try to create a fun and entertaining experience that removes us from the difficulties of our lives. The October tragedy was the exact opposite."

In attempting to serve both goals, several artists, among them the show's returning host, Reba McEntire, met this week with survivors of the shooting, their families and emergency response workers who were on the scene.

Host Reba McEntire, left, Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles speak onstage during the 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Host Reba McEntire, left, Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles speak onstage during the 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

"It's very emotional," said McEntire, herself a survivor of tragedy when a plane carrying members of her band crashed in 1991, killing seven of them and her tour manager. She was not on the plane.

"This is the first time our country music family has come back to Las Vegas since the tragedy," she said. "Yesterday I got to go down to see some of the folks who were there, meet them, shake their hands and take pictures with them. It's been pretty tough on a lot of them; it's been pretty tough on all of us."

The veteran singer described her hosting duties as "a huge responsibility," adding: "The reason we came back to Vegas instead of going somewhere else for the show this year was to show that we're not afraid. We're tough, we're strong, we're proud Americans and we're going to do what we do best, and try to help take people's minds off their problems."

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Relative newcomer Luke Combs was on the bill with Aldean on the night of the massacre. On Sunday he said returning to Las Vegas this week affected him more powerfully than he expected.

"I have kind of a thick skin," he said. "But man, it hit me more than I thought it would. I really felt it — and it's good that I did."

Kristian Bush, half of the country duo Sugarland, which weathered its own tragedy in 2011 when a stage in Indiana collapsed during a storm, killing seven and injuring dozens more, said Sunday, "I'm really proud of the way people have come together over this. We know what tragedy at a show looks like and we wish there had been a community like this surrounding us to help everyone get through it."

This is the first time our country music family has come back to Las Vegas since the tragedy.... It's been pretty tough on all of us.


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Last fall's rampage, which ended when the shooter took his own life, threw a spotlight on country music's relationship with guns, which have often been celebrated in songs about rural life, and also as a part of many musicians' lives. The National Rifle Assn. in recent years has established a campaign called NRA Country to support various artists on their tours, although some participants quietly distanced themselves from that program in the aftermath of the massacre.

Still, the NRA Country website continues promoting upcoming concerts by avid gun-rights advocate Charlie Daniels and his current tour support acts, Travis Tritt and Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers.

Some country acts have begun speaking in favor of reducing or eliminating access to high-powered assault-type weapons like the one used in Las Vegas, as well as for more thorough background checks on prospective gun buyers, longer waiting periods and other gun-control measures.

"It's too easy to get guns, first and foremost," Aldean told the Associated Press recently. "When you can walk in somewhere and you can get one in five minutes, do a background check that takes five minutes, like how in-depth is that background check? Those are the issues I have.

"It's not necessarily the guns themselves or that I don't think people should have guns. I have a lot of them," Aldean said. "[But] nobody is looking at what the actual issue is and really how to come to an agreement and make a smart decision."

At the end of the evening, Aldean collected his third consecutive entertainer of the year award, and after thanking various individuals, his wife and children, he returned once more to the subject on everyone's minds.

"It's been a rough year," he said, "I want to thank everyone who reached out and showed us love and support over the last six months — it meant the world to us. And our Route 91 people: You're in our hearts."

If all that didn't make for enough of an issue-heavy evening, the ceremony also was the first major music industry awards event since the 2018 Grammy Awards in January. The Recording Academy, which bestows the awards, was hammered in a #GrammysSoMale campaign that called out the inordinate number of nominations and awards bestowed on male musicians.

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Country music is even more male-centric at the moment than pop music in general: last week's Billboard Hot Country singles chart listed just three recordings featuring women among the 30 most popular songs in the nation.

The reason we came back to Vegas instead of going somewhere else for the show this year was to show that we’re not afraid.


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"We're a mirror, reflecting what the state of the industry is," the ACM's Fisher said, "and when we look in that mirror right now, we don't like what the reflection looks like. Gender equality is not just a box you check to say 'Yes, we got that covered.' Gender equality makes us better, makes us stronger.

"We want to see more women behind the microphone, but not only that, behind the [recording and broadcasting] console as well. We want to hear those voices on country radio, and we feel a responsibility to be part of the solution."

To that end, the ACM hosted a Vegas edition of an ongoing series of panels titled "Change the Conversation," on Saturday, leading into Sunday's awards ceremonies.

Singer-songwriter Cam joined program co-founders Country Music Television executive Leslie Fram, veteran manager and talent scout Tracy Gershon and Beverly Keel , former label executive now with Middle Tennessee State University's Department of Recording Industry.

"To be perfectly clear, the future financial stability and cultural relevancy of the music business depends on how we can fully incorporate women into all areas of the business, from creators to distributors," Cam said last week in a statement.

For McEntire, who has charted nearly 100 country hits over more than four decades, the current situation is partly due to the pendulum swing in country over time.

"It's always been cyclical," the Oklahoma native said. "There are times when you'll find all women dominating the charts, then here come the men. Then it's all contemporary, then here comes the traditional country music again. We just have to get our stuff together, and get all our ladies to be prepared for when our time comes around again.

"When you have somebody writing great songs like [rising singer-songwriter] Brandy Clark, that's the heartbeat of America," McEntire said. "I'm so proud of all these ladies who are working so hard to be heard. They need to be heard on the radio because they're not cookie-cutter singers at all. They're all uniquely talented."

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