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Monday September 21st, 2020 5:37AM

Country's stars sing to empty seats at ACM Awards

By The Associated Press
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Country group Old Dominion took an early lead at the Academy of Country Music Awards, winning song of the year and group of the year, as they acknowledged how the empty seats in front of them reminded them of people who they had lost.

The awards show on Wednesday aired from empty venues in Nashville, Tennessee, with no fans and no applause, even when winners got up live to accept their awards. Matthew Ramsey, lead singer of Old Dominion, said the empty venue and quiet made him think of friends and family they had lost.

“I can feel them all,” Ramsey said on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry House as he accepted the award for song of the year for “One Man Band.” “They are so proud, and it’s such an honor to receive this in their presence.”

Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Luke Combs, Thomas Rhett and Carrie Underwood, all vying for entertainer of the year, sang to empty seats and no applause at the Grand Ole Opry House, the Ryman Auditorium and the Bluebird Cafe. The show was delayed from April due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the tone for Wednesday's show airing on CBS will be more serious that in years past.

Host Keith Urban noted all the changes this year for the show and for the country in general, saying 2020 has been an “unpredictable and unsettling year.” After noting wildfires on the West Coast, hurricanes in the South, Urban said the country is battling two pandemics: COVID-19 and social injustice.

“Far too many lives have been lost to both,” he said. “But the examples set by essential workers, our first responders, along with the voices crying out for equality in all walks of life, have echoed around the world and right here in our country community.”

The show is being rebranded as a “night of heart and hits” that will also reflect how hard the pandemic has hit many people this year, especially in the music industry.

Miranda Lambert performed a stripped-down version of her No. 1 song “Bluebird,” at the Bluebird Cafe in a blue fringed shirt and a sparkly belt. Lambert’s vocals seemed to fill up the space in the tiny songwriters' club surrounded by tables and chairs, but no fans.

Carrie Underwood sang a tribute to iconic female Opry members, including Patsy Cline, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Barbara Mandrell, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. The entertainer of the year nominee effortlessly breezed through snippets of classics like “Crazy,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That,” and “Fancy.”

“They are some of my heroes and I am so honored to stand alongside them as a fellow member of the Opry,” said Underwood, who sang her heart out to a venue that flickered with lights where people should have been.

Trisha Yearwood will perform a memorial tribute performance that will likely include Kenny Rogers, Joe Diffie, Charlie Daniels and John Prine, who all died in 2020. Country singer Mickey Guyton’s performance of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” will highlight food insecurity. The ACMs will also showcase their charity contributions to unemployed workers in the music industry.

Leading nominees include Dan + Shay, Old Dominion and Maren Morris, and all eyes will be on the entertainer of the year category. Underwood, who won the category in 2008 and 2009, seems a likely frontrunner after many feel she was overdue for an entertainer of the year win at the other major country awards show, the CMA Awards, last November.

Swift, who makes her first return to the ACM stage in seven years, was the last female artist to win ACM entertainer of the year in 2011.

Combs, who earned his first entertainer of the year nomination this year after winning new male artist of the year last year, could prove to be an upset after amassing incredible streaming numbers with his first two records and hitting the top of Billboard’s country radio chart for nine consecutive singles.

The eligibility period for this year’s show was calendar year 2019 and voting ended before the pandemic hit, so the awards being handed out this late in the year may sound a little older than what is currently trending in country music.

Miranda Lambert, already the most awarded artist in ACM history with over 30 wins, looks to extend her five-time win streak in the album of the year category with her record “Wildcard.” But the crossover success of Maren Morris’s album “GIRL” is also likely appeal to voters this year.

Grammy winners Dan + Shay have a chance to bring home an ACM award for pop star Justin Bieber in the song of the year category for “10,000 Hours.”

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