Live venues across America are hurting after a brutal coronavirus forced them to go dark.
But when Miranda Lambert performs “Bluebird” with co-writers Natalie Hemby (“Rainbow,” “Heartache Medication”) and Luke Dick (“Burning Man,” “Kill a Word”) on the Sept. 16 telecast of the 55th annual Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards, the song itself will inject a moment of necessary hope.
“I’ll keep a light on in my soul, keep a bluebird in my heart,” the chorus promises.
The words will carry a worthy symbolism in the ACM setting, delivered under a lighted neon rainbow at the Bluebird Cafe — yes, they’re singing “Bluebird” at the Bluebird — as the venue provides an awards-show setting for the first time in its 38-year history.
“The Bluebird came up ’cause it’s the home of songwriters,” says ACM CEO Damon Whiteside. “It’s a good way to kind of salute our songwriters and the stories behind the songs. It’s so iconic, and we just thought what a great look to have that small, intimate venue on television for a live network broadcast.”
Using the Bluebird is an attempt at turning COVID-19 lemons into TV lemonade. The awards’ original April 5 Las Vegas ceremony was scuttled when the coronavirus made it unsafe to travel or to pack an auditorium. CBS identified Sept. 16 as a viable replacement date amid its expected fall season, and the ACM explored numerous non-arena options in multiple cities, ultimately deciding to showcase Nashville with performances from the Grand Ole Opry House, the Ryman Auditorium and the Bluebird.
The Opry House will serve as the primary location, with Keith Urban hosting. The Ryman performances were pretaped since the downtown hall had already been booked for the Americana Honors & Awards. (In an odd but appropriate COVID-19 twist, that show is not being held that night because of safety concerns.) Music by Lambert, Luke Combs, Jimmie Allen and Tim McGraw will emanate from the Bluebird, and if any of them should win, executives in the production truck outside the Opry House will quickly switch the live feed to that locale.
The opportunity is huge for the Bluebird. It seats only 90 people, but needs at least 65 to break even on any given show. With coronavirus restrictions limiting current patronage to less than half capacity, the site can’t make money whether it’s open or closed. The ACM Awards will bring in rental revenue and provide interim publicity for the undetermined post-pandemic date when the club can reopen.
“Just to be able to have the Bluebird held in people’s hearts and minds, it’s really important,” says Bluebird GM Erika Wollam Nichols. “And it’s a reminder to people what an incredible sort of support and piece of our industry the Bluebird is. I’m grateful that the ACM saw us as a significant piece of our music community and brought us into it.”
It’s being treated like it’s valuable, too. Rather than embellish it with extra lights and attractions, ACM Awards executive producer Richard A. “RAC” Clark embraced its smallness. The rainbow sign is highlighted, the performances are scaled down, and the columns in the center of the room are incorporated into the production. It’s different than Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena, the awards’ longtime home, but that’s kind of the point.
“Knowing where we are with COVID, we shouldn’t go and do a huge venue that could potentially be empty,” says Clark. “It’s the first time the ACMs have come to Nashville. So why don’t we just embrace Nashville as a postcard?”
None of it is easy, particularly with coronavirus protocols placing severe limitations on personnel and movement. At the Bluebird, dick clark productions (dcp is owned by MRC Entertainment, which is also the parent company of Billboard) was able to commandeer all the parking spaces and adjunct businesses in its strip mall location to create a tightly guarded artist compound, with buses serving as the green room and the dressing room. The venue is limited to essential personnel only — no audience — and neighboring shops will be converted to production offices.
The Opry House has its own restrictions. Performances are limited to seven people onstage, thus Lambert’s previously announced rendition of “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” with five other singers and at least seven band members was scrapped. The press room has been converted to a virtual Q&A setting. And crew members must treat safeguards as part of the uniform, not dismiss them as infringements on their freedom.
“Working personnel must wear a face mask over their nose and mouth, plus a shield over their face,” says Clark. “There’s no exceptions to the rule.”
Some rules have changed. Instead of sitting in the audience, nominated artists will wait for their names to be called from side stage. And since that means the winner’s walk is shorter — and has fewer distractions — Clark saves valuable seconds in programming. That change salvaged enough time that the ACMs were able to squeeze an extra four minutes of music into the rundown.
The California-based ACM brought only necessary staff to Nashville. Those who are able, such as social-media personnel, will handle their awards duties remotely from their West Coast homes. But the crew will not be the focus for viewers. That will still be the music, and some trademark Nashville venues.
“Our city has gone through a tornado, it’s gone through the pandemic, all the bars and restaurants and live entertainment shut down,” observes Whiteside. “So for us, it’s very rewarding to be the first live awards show back on television and to be able to shine a light on Nashville.”
No one wants the aftermath to result in negative news about artists coming down with COVID-19, so caution is the operative word.
“Everybody is being super careful in order to be able to accommodate this incredible thing live during the virus,” says Wollam Nichols. “I’m really, really impressed with how careful they are being.”
The production has forced the ACM and producers to handle a series of surprises, large and small. And one big unknown remains: Will this first Bluebird awards appearance also be the last?
The ACM has the MGM Grand on hold for its April 18, 2021, telecast. But uncertainties surrounding the pandemic mean the academy may have to change venues again. “We’re having ongoing discussions with our board and monitoring how things are going,” says Whiteside. “We probably won’t be able to make a real decision for a while on it.”
Whether they return to Nashville and the Bluebird or find themselves back at an arena, Clark is certain that what they have learned through this year’s revisions will have long-term consequences for awards productions.
“This will change how we do live televised awards shows,” predicts Clark. “There will be something that will come out of this — I don’t know what it is quite yet — that will carry into when we go back to regular award shows, whatever it is.”
This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.