As the Academy of Country Music gears up for the 2021 ACM Awards on Sunday night (April 18), fans and media members alike have questions: What will COVID-19 protocols look like? How will the three-venue setup, plus a few remote performances, work this year? What will everyone be wearing?

But the biggest question for the ACM, according to CEO Damon Whiteside, is: How can the Academy shift the country music genre into one that is representative of this country as a whole?

The 56th annual ACMs bring a number of firsts: Kane Brown is the first Black solo artist to win ACM Video of the Year, thanks to the music video for his song “Worldwide Beautiful.” Additionally, his 2020 album Mixtape, Vol. 1 is nominated for Album of the Year, another first for a Black artist.

Jimmie Allen, meanwhile, is the first Black artist to win New Male Artist of the Year. And Mickey Guyton will be the first Black woman to ever host the ACM Awards. (The last Black artist to host the show was Charley Pride, in 1986 -- 35 years ago.)

Guyton is co-hosting the 2021 ACM Awards with Keith Urban. ACM showrunners and Academy brass decided to ask her to fill the role after watching Guyton and Urban perform “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” at the 2020 ACMs; he accompanied her on piano from an empty Grand Ole Opry House.

"I'm sitting with the executive-producer team at Dick Clark Productions and we were watching that live performance, and we literally had goosebumps just watching her blossom onstage like that," Whiteside recalls to Billboard of that moment. "It was so powerful watching Keith play piano for her. We were so moved by it. Literally, right after that, we were like, 'We've got to ask her to host with Keith next year.'"

Whiteside also sees Guyton’s turn in the spotlight as an opportunity to promote diversity within country music. “This show is a celebration of the best of country music, and it’s about bringing joy to people,” he tells the Country Music Media Podcast. “But at the same time, we are a reflection of what’s going on in the world.”

The ACM and CBS, which broadcasts the ACM Awards, are leaning into diversity as a theme for this year’s show, set for Sunday (April 18): Guyton recently shared a video package, dubbed “Country Music Looks Like This,” highlighting overlooked Black artists in the genre.

Several performers at the 2021 ACM Awards are Black, as are two of eight presenters (Blanco Brown and Darius Rucker). But while the 2021 ACM Awards reflect the focus on racial diversity in country music, this year’s ceremony is also diverse in terms of gender: Forty-five percent of the artists on the final ACM Awards ballot in 2021 were women, and with Ingrid Andress, Dolly Parton, Amy Grant and Martina McBride announcing awards, 50 percent of this year’s presenters are women. Additionally, one presenter, actor Leslie Jordan, is openly gay.

It’s no accident: To the Taste of Country Nights radio show, Dierks Bentley recalled how he assembled his band for his 2021 ACM Awards performance of “Pride (in the Name of Love).” The country star initially thought about performing his current single, “Gone,” but when showrunners also asked him to help them diversify the show’s lineup, he invited sister duo Larkin Poe, fiddle player Brittany Haas and husband-and-wife duo the War and Treaty to support him during a performance from Nashville’s venerated bluegrass club the Station Inn.

“It’s an important moment in country music,” Bentley says of where the genre is currently, “because we are trying to change things up a little bit and let more people in.”

The phrase “representation matters” has become something of a chestnut in recent years, but performing and presenting at the ACM Awards -- not to mention being nominated and taking home trophies -- has material consequences for artists. “Award nominations bring artists increased visibility -- and it’s not just about the award,” says Dr. Jada Watson of the University of Ottawa, the principal investigator at SongData, which researches and reports on equity in country music.

Watson’s most recent study, Redlining in Country Music: Representation in the Country Music Industry (2000 - 2020) reveals how Black artists have been cut out of the country music industry as a result of gatekeeping and data-driven decisions in airplay and promotion that reinforce inequities.

“Nominated artists walk the red carpet, have opportunities for interviews and often perform on the televised ceremony. Each of these opportunities puts the artist in front of millions of viewers,” Watson tells The Boot -- potential new fans who can, in turn, help artists take home more trophies in the future.

As of 2021, the ACM Awards criteria for New Male Artist, Female Artist and Duo or Group of the Year, Single of the Year, Song of the Year, Music Event of the Year and Songwriter of the Year require that nominees chart in the Top 50 or higher on the Billboard country charts to be considered. That’s simply not possible for the artists who are shut out of traditional structures.

Whiteside acknowledges that, therefore, the ACM and others in the industry need to ensure that there is an “even playing field” for all artists in the genre. “We want to be inclusive of everybody. All fans of all races and all ages love country music the way we do,” he tells the Country Music Media Podcast.

In 2018, the ACM convened their Diversity and Inclusion Task Force to examine how they can do just that. In recent years, the Academy has examined its place in the world, asking themselves, Whiteside says, “How do we ensure that the future of country music really represents what the composition of this country really is?”

“There has never been a formal announcement that we even had the task force, and that was intentional,” Becky Gardenhire, the task force’s chair, tells The Boot via email. “We wanted to do something relevant, have something to say, before we just blew a reactionary horn.”

The idea for the task force began with the recognition that there were few women being nominated for awards, but the group is also looking to create equity for artists of color, Indigenous artists and LGBTQ+ artists. Though the ACM opts to not publicize the task force's members, Gardenhire describes them as “diverse, including in areas such as age, race and in the breadth of how people identify, as well as in the areas of the business they work in, which we felt was important -- ranging from female engineers to label reps to Nashville business leaders.”

“We’ve made intentional hires when it comes to behind the scenes and production on the show,” adds Gardenhire, who is co-head of the talent agency WME’s Nashville office. “We have quietly sponsored LGBTQ+ events in country, and more recently partnered with Nashville Music Equality.”

The ACM task force, Gardenhire shares, presented their initial findings to the Academy’s board in August, taking care to work methodically. Gardenhire says they’re currently examining the ACM’s award nomination criteria, a move that aligns with the findings of Watson’s study.

Redlining in Country Music noted that one way to increase representation on award shows is to create opportunities for performance. The ACM has started to make change in this regard when they invited Mickey Guyton to perform “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” in September 2020, in a year she did not receive a nomination,” Watson observes of an opportunity that preceded a Grammy Awards nod and more for Guyton.

“Of course, [Guyton was] up for New Female Artist of the Year this year, and she’ll be co-hosting the ceremony with Keith Urban,” Watson continues. “These opportunities significantly increase her visibility within the country music industry -- especially when she’s not receiving the same attention elsewhere.”

Gardenhire reports that the task force is also looking at the ACM’s membership and outreach processes, to ensure a more diverse voting body. Additionally, there are educational opportunities for Academy staff and board members, as well as for artists.

The task force is also supporting initiatives to educate country music fans on the genre’s multicultural and queer origins. “To that end, we actively promote diversity and historical education in our social media,” Gardenhire says, “reaching fans with hopefully compelling, perspective-shifting entertainment.”

That history has a direct impact on the way the country music genre looks today says Watson, whose Redlining study illustrates how human decision-making and biases around which artists get radio airplay creates a snowball effect that negatively affects artists who are not “cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied white men for whom and by whom the industry was built.”

“The industry was built on a musical color line that echoed Jim Crow segregation, and that has been maintained/reinforced for the last century,” Watson explains. “Within this white racial frame, the industry has also historically believed its majority white female audience prefers white male voices -- so built into this already racist system are other forms of oppression … Because this system makes money, there is little incentive to make change.”

With the task force, the ACM is doing just what Watson recommends: Exploring why certain voices aren’t being represented at both the ACM Awards show and via the ACM’s internal workings. Watson urges the questioning to go beyond equal representation for white women, who, since “tomatogate” in 2015 and prior to 2020’s racial reckoning in the United States, were often the main focus of discussions about inequality in country music.

“The industry and fans need to look at playlists, charts and nominated artists and question absence. This is already done with regard to white women, of course, and changes to eligibility criteria have been done with the view to improving their representation,” Watson explains. “But given the multiracial and multiethnic roots of the industry, it is imperative to question the absence of BIPOC artists, especially women and LGBTQ+ artists, as the marker of a problem and not as a sign of few active artists. Of course, this necessarily extends to ability, which is often unspoken but a significant part of this white narrative.”

Says Whiteside to the Country Music Media Podcast, “It’s not about what your ethnic background is. If you like country music or want to perform country music, it’s for everybody.”

After relocating from Las Vegas, Nev., to Nashville in 2020 out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, the ACM Awards are back in Music City in 2021. They'll be following national, state and local guidelines related to the pandemic, as well as additional, self-imposed safety measures. As showrunners did last year, they're spreading this year's ACMs event out across three iconic Music City venues: the Grand Ole Opry House, the Ryman Auditorium and the Bluebird Cafe. Some performances will also take place at the Station Inn and the Bridge Building, and on Lower Broadway.

The 2021 ACM Awards will begin at 8PM ET and will air live on CBS and be available to stream on Paramount+. Sign up for the streaming service here.

Peek Inside 2021 ACM Awards Rehearsals:

The 2021 ACM Awards will air live from Nashville on Sunday (April 18). In the days leading up to the big show, artists have been preparing for their performances and speaking with media members in Nashville.

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