Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton performed at last year’s ACM Awards (alongside Brad Paisley and Sheryl Crow), and the country cutups will host again this year.
The shock that anyone might have felt in seeing how well country music plays in Las Vegas has long since worn off. When the Entertainment Capital of the World hosts what is arguably the most mainstream of all American popular music, the only question is one of scale: How big can the party get?
Residencies by country institutions like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have already settled in among the Strip’s premier musical productions. Last year marked a decade since the Academy of Country Music moved its annual awards show to Vegas from Los Angeles, and what was once a one-night event has expanded into a marathon blowout officially billed “The Week Vegas Goes Country.”
This year the transformation happens the first week of April, starting with the two-day, outdoor ACM Party for a Cause Festival, the inaugural event for the brand-new, open-air shop-and-play district the Linq. At Friday’s Outnumber Hunger Live! concert, the main stage will welcome the country-pop power trio Rascal Flatts and up-and-comers Thomas Rhett and The Cadillac Three, while at Saturday’s event, presented by the charity ACM Lifting Lives, anthemic romancer Keith Urban will be joined by Joe Nichols, JerrodNiemann, and Chris Young.
The party builds to Sunday night, when the ACM Awards will be broadcast live from the MGM Grand Garden Arena, with the ACM Fan Jam going on simultaneously at Mandalay Bay Events Center. If it’s not obvious from the name, the Fan Jam is a tricked-out viewing party: After the awards and other special live performances unfold on-screen, the party-stoking host duo, Florida Georgia Line—whose hit “Cruise” was recently certified country’s top-selling digital song of all time—will play in person.
With the ACM Awards rapidly approaching the 50-year mark, it’s easy to forget that the Academy of Country Music began as an underdog. The country performers of Nashville had the Country Music Association in their corner, and overlooked West Coast acts—like Bakersfield, California, scene-makers Buck Owens and Merle Haggard—decided they needed an organization of their own.
Nowadays, country music’s regional idiosyncrasies have mostly faded, with radio playlists all over the nation rotating through the same acts and many of the genre’s biggest stars capturing top honors at both the CMAs and the ACMs. But there are still things that set the Vegas festivities apart, such as the important fan vote in the ACM categories of entertainer of the year and new artist of the year.
And then there’s the sheer number of trophies handed out. “One big thing the ACMs have going for them is that they have more categories, specifically in regard to new acts,” says Brian Mansfield, USA Today’s Nashville correspondent and an old hand at covering country awards shows. “Because the ACMs split new artists into three categories—male vocalist, female vocalist, and duo or group of the year—before awarding an overall new artist of the year award, artists often win their first major award from the ACMs.”
Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan, who return as the show’s cohosts this year, happen to be tied at four ACMs apiece, counting Shelton’s Gene Weed Special Achievement Award for his coaching role on NBC’s The Voice.
Besides that, “They’re good friends with a natural chemistry that comes across on camera,” says ACM Awards producer Barry Adelman. “The audience senses they really like each other, so they can get away with saying anything to each other… and it makes for really funny exchanges.” Right out of the gate last year, Shelton gave a shoutout to Sherwin Williams “for spray-paintin’ Luke’s jeans on tonight.”
Considering that Bryan held a press conference this January announcing that he has graduated to playing NFL stadiums and major-market arenas, and that Shelton has spent five seasons on one of prime-time TV’s most watched reality shows, these two reigning country music chart-toppers have just about the highest profiles possible. And for a celebration in Vegas of the genre’s greatest, bigger is definitely better. Tickets to the second annual ACM Party for a Cause Festival, on April 4 and 5 at the Linq, are available at ticket master.com; tickets to the April 6 awards show are sold at acmawards.com