While everyone around the world is still juggling with the new normals that arrived when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Academy of Country Music had to find their footing — and their own new normal — to put on their annual awards show.
So on Wednesday night (Sept. 16), nothing felt familiar, but somehow it all felt right.
The way the show used to work was this: the ACM Awards winners would accept their trophy onstage in front of an arena full of fans and viewers watching from home, and then they would come backstage to talk with reporters about the win. This year, no reporters could be there in real life, so the ACM set up a Zoom call so that the artists could virtually share their thoughts with about 40 country music reporters from all over Nashville and beyond.
Here’s what each artist had to say about this year’s show, while they were backstage at the show’s three empty venues for the night, the Bluebird Cafe, the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry:
Carrie Underwood and Thomas Rhett
Entertainer of the Year
In an unprecedented year, it makes sense that the grand prize of the night would also be unprecedented. And it was, with a history-making tie for entertainer of the year. Here’s what the two winners had to say backstage.
Underwood: “It feels great. This is the most unusual awards show I’ve been to, but I think everybody did such a good job and came together to celebrate music, and it’s that thing where everybody’s trying to figure out what we do in a different way. A big night for sure. You can’t have too much of a good thing, so I would always love to see more women. We’ve been taking steps in the right direction — which is really nice to see — and tonight with me getting to honor some of the women that we’re all standing on their shoulders. I don’t think I could ever look at myself like (those women). I feel like a tourist still. I’m waiting for the day that people figure me out and leave me behind. I will never look at myself the way that anybody should look at those women. I’m always really glad to hear when people like what I do. I talked to Gabby Barrett a bit, because we came up the same way, so I always love to give any advice any way that I can.”
Thomas Rhett: “When I was standing backstage listening to Keith Urban call the names, I was just like, ’There’s no way. There’s no way.’ And for me to get to tie this award with Carrie Underwood is just mind blowing. I’ve worked so hard to even be thought of for this category. We put so many countless hours in rehearsing and making our show as entertaining as it can possibly be. So to be able to share that with Carrie is absolutely a dream come true. It truly has been a dream of mine since day one. And winning entertainer of the year was the top No. 1 on the list. And being here tonight at the Opry, getting to hear an idol of mine Keith Urban mention my name along with Carrie Underwood, it made me feel like I’m not the new guy anymore. Being such a huge fan of Carrie since I was 15 or 16 years old, and winning such an iconic award with her just solidified a lot of things for me. This was a big pat on the back for the amount of hours we put in. Tonight is such a dream, I don’t know how to put it into words.”
Female Artist of the Year
“My performance itself was so emotional because it was at the Ryman, and it had been months since I’ve gotten to see my band. So even though we were performing for no audience, I felt like, ’Hey at least we’re getting to play live music.’ We didn’t want to the song to end. After you have a kid, especially, you kind of have to fit back into your artist girl shoes and you’re not just a mom for a second. It was a lot to absorb, but I had so much fun up there. I’m in shock still. The award is just so monumental. The women who have gone before me and won that award, that’s who I really should’ve thanked. I am so inspired by every single woman in that category. I am friends with every woman in that category. So I know how much we uplift and support each other, so it just feels amazing to walk away with that. I just never really saw myself winning this. I am so humbled that my Nashville community and my industry peeps think that my year has been big. Someone saying that I had a good year is so much validation.”
Male Artist of the Year
“The first time that I was ever here was for a benefit at the Bluebird. We got the last two tickets to see Jessi Alexander, Tom Douglas and Chris Stapleton. We sat there and watched, and I remember thinking to myself, ’Man, we should probably move home, because we’re totally not these people.’ And so to be here tonight and to get to play live for everybody and take a couple of awards home has been a really full circle moment. Tonight was the first time I’ve performed outside of my garage in six or seven months, so that was really nice. The tour bus has been parked outside of my house since March, and it’s weird seeing it sit there. Just being able to play and get to win some trophies has been really great.
“It was really wild getting married this year, come hell or high water. We made the best of it. The time at home has been something that I’m not accustomed to, but something that I’m very grateful for to be able to spend time with my wife and us to enjoy each other’s company. And tonight is just the cherry on top of that.
“I constantly think about how lucky I am and how grateful I am to be in the situation I am. To get married this year was an amazing bright spot in my life, and to have tonight on top of it and have a really small group of people I love has just been amazing. I’m just grateful to be the guy standing here talking to you all.”
What You See Is What You Get, Luke Combs
Album of the Year
“(This award) means a lot. It’s been a bucket list thing for me. I remember seeing a couple of my heroes win this award and just thinking to myself, ’Man, if I could put that kind of work in and achieve those kinds of things, that would be a dream come true.’ The work is worth it. This is a huge team effort. I’m just the guy behind the mic.”
Dan + Shay
Duo of the Year
“This whole thing, it all just looks really different. We’re used to being in Vegas, so it’s nice to be back here in Nashville and to be a part of that history. Everyone’s really excited that we’re able to start working again and have this awards show and enjoy live music and see some of our friends even, if it’s at a distance. It’s an interesting situation. We’ve all been tested for COVID all week and everybody’s been healthy, knock on wood and fingers crossed. Country music is such a family so it’s hard to see someone and not be able to give them a hug, but we’re being respectful of the precautions being taken. Honestly, this means more to us now that ever. We haven’t had that experience of being able to tour and feel the love from fans. It’s been a blank slate, so getting recognition from our peers and from the Academy of Country Music means a lot. In the months that we were not doing a lot, now more than ever it’s an incredible honor. It never gets old. Every touring artist — we all feel that thankfulness. All of us realize it can be taken away like that.”
“One Man Band,” Old Dominion (Josh Osborne, Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen, Brad Tursi
Song of the Year
“It’s just awesome that you can have success with your true friend. He is absolutely that. He has been part of this ride the whole time. We love Josh (Osborne) as a person, and he just so happens to have single-handedly raised the bar of the quality of songs you hear on the radio over the last couple years.”
Group of the Year
“This is interesting because we’ve basically lived together — we’ve seen each other more than our own families — for five or six years. And so being home for a little bit was an adjustment. And then you kind of find the silver lining and try to appreciate it. When we did a rehearsal for this, it felt like Christmas.”
Watch the 55th ACM Awards for free on CBS.com and the CBS app.