Academy of Country Music Awards Come Up With a Pandemic Plan for 2021: Repeat What Worked for 2020

If the fix isn’t broke, don’t fix it. That is the plan for the 56th annual Academy of Country Music Awards, which for the second year in a row will steer clear of the show’s longtime Las Vegas home base and instead settle in to three iconic Nashville locations, the Grand Ole Opry House, the Ryman Auditorium and the Bluebird Cafe.

In 2020, the planned April telecast date came and went after the shutdown of public gatherings across the nation in March, before a late April announcement that the ACMs for last year would be moved from Vegas to those three Tennessee venues… in September. There was a strong enough reaction to how that plan finally unfolded that the ACM Awards are sticking with those three landing spots for 2021, while also going back to an April date — even if that does have this year’s ACMs coming only seven months after the last one instead of 12.

The three-hour show will be broadcast April 18 on CBS live at 8 p.m. on the east coast and tape-delayed for the same time slot on the west coast.

No information about a host or performers has yet been announced. The 2020 show brought in Keith Urban as host.

The multiple-location format taken up in last fall’s telecast was heralded in a Variety column under the headline “ACMs Figured Out How to Do a Pandemic-Era Music Awards Show Right — Were the Grammys Watching?” (With the 2021 Grammys pushed back until March, it still remains to be seen whether the Grammys might take any cues from what did or didn’t work at last September’s ACMs, or the CMA Awards that followed in November, for that matter.)

“We’re thrilled to return to Music City’s most iconic venues as we come together on April 18 to celebrate the best in country music, back in our normal awards cycle,” Damon Whiteside, CEO of the Academy of Country Music, said in a statement. “A huge thank you to the city of Nashville, Grand Ole Opry House, Ryman Auditorium and Bluebird Cafe for welcoming us back to Nashville, where we can look out for the safety of our artists while shining a spotlight on this vibrant city after a tough 2020.”

One likely difference between the previous ACMs telecast and this one will be the almost certain presence of a limited live audience at the Opry House and Ryman (it goes without saying that social distancing isn’t possible at the Bluebird, the tiny club made world-famous by the TV series “Nashville”). The two larger venues have been letting partial houses in for months. The Academy’s announcement emphasized that safety measures would take top priority.

Last year’s show was a mixture of live and pre-taped. Awards presentations and acceptance speeches were seen live from the Opry House, as were performances by Urban and Mickey Guyton, though most of the Opry songs were recorded in advance. Everything filmed at the Ryman was pre-recorded. At least some of the Bluebird performances were live. It won’t likely be until show week that it becomes evident how many of the 2021 show’s musical performances can or will be done in real time.

Putting any kind of audience on-camera does carry risks, at least as far as public perception goes. In November, the CMA Awards show came in for criticism for showing a small, unmasked audience consisting mostly of nominees and their guests gathered on a soundstage, even though the dinner-party configuration had tables socially distanced and producers publicly declared that everyone involved was COVID-tested and required to wear masks when up and about.

In conjunction with the announcement of the locations for the 2021 show, the ACM’s charitable arm, ACM Lifting Lives, said it ws giving $25,000 to the Music City Inc. Foundation for its Nashville Christmas Day Explosion Relief Fund.