Mickey Guyton will be there to represent as she co-hosts Sunday night’s Academy of Country Music Awards show — not least of all, represent her own long-deserving career reach the next level on the big stage, but also to front what she promises will be a more conscientiously diverse lineup than some viewers might expect.
“Representation matters so much to me, because the country music genre is such a beautiful genre,” Guyton said in a break from rehearsals for the telecast. “The people in the community are so inclusive, and it’s time that the award shows show that.”
Although her co-host, Keith Urban, might seem far more ingrained within the country music establishment than she is, she thinks even he stands as a symbol of progress, if you think back far enough to a time when he would not necessarily have been thought of as a genre shoo-in.
“Me standing up there,” she says, “hosting an awards show with another outsider — Keith Urban, who came from Australia; he was very different in his time as well — it’s two outsiders coming together and showing what country music is.
“And it is all things: Country music is Black, country music is white, country music is Latino, country music is the LBGTQ community. We’re showing that on Sunday night, and it’s so important, and it’s beautiful.”
Guyton is a bona fide TV star at this point, if still very much a country radio up-and-comer. Two of the most powerful moments on any awards show within the last year were her riveting performance of the feminist lament “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” on last year’s ACM Awards telecast (where she was accompanied by Urban on piano), followed by the racial reckoning anthem “Black Like Me” on November’s CMA Awards. She reprised the latter song to great effect on the recent Grammy Awards, which further boosted her to a level of mainstream recognition that helped make her a safer, if still bold, choice for CBS and Dick Clark Productions to pick for an ACMs hosting role that typically goes to superstars like Reba McEntire.
Although it feels like “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and “Black Like Me” should probably be on every awards show, every year, she is moving on to a different pick for Sunday’s show, one that was written and originally released well before the pandemic but might seem timed for it in this moment.
“The song I have is not new-new, but it is a new song for the (average) listener,” Guyton says. “I wrote this song called ‘Hold On’ that was on the ‘Breakthrough’ movie soundtrack (in 2019). We wanted something really inspiring for this, but we did change it up, though (from the film version).” There’ll be a whole regiment of accompanists from nearby Belmont University. “I love me a good choir, because for me, growing up in the church, there’s something about when a choir comes to play in song, you just instantly feel the spirit. … We’ve brought a new life to the song, and it’s telling them to hold on it during these times. We’ve been in a pandemic for over a year, and I know everybody is so ready for this to be over so that we can have human interaction again, in person.”
Show producers have promised the show will be brighter and more consistently fun and upbeat than last year’s, starting with the opening number, which will have Miranda Lambert and Elle King singing a number irreverently titled “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home).” (See Variety‘s interview with Academy of Country Music CEO Damon Whiteside.) Is Guyton’s number designed to lend the show at least a touch of topical gravity?
“This absolutely does. I always try in my performances to bring a little bit of gravity, because that’s just who I am and that’s my life. And I want people to feel hopeful. It’s great, you know, to have (purely) fun songs. But I like to empower people during these times. Because let’s be honest, there’s people that don’t know how they’re going to pay rent, and they don’t know how they’re going to buy food. And we want this moment to be there for them so that they can feel happiness and hope.”
The audience for the show will consist of socially distanced clusters of attendees in the balconies of the Grand Ole Opry House and Ryman Auditorium, with nominees cycled in and out of the Opry House floor as their categories come up. When the last ACMs were aired, delayed till last September, there were just LED lights in the pews where an audience would be.
“It is going to be a little bit different because we’ve invited Vanderbilt health care workers to be in attendance, and they are vaccinated. They are socially distant; hey are tested.” says Guyton. “And we’re going to honor them, because let’s be honest. The healthcare workers have basically been our army for the last year-plus in fighting this awful virus. I’s important that we show that we appreciate them. My sister’s a nurse, so I’ve heard firsthand how horrible this virus is. And I’m so thankful to have them there and show how grateful we are for them.”
Having never hosted a show before, Guyton laughs as she declares: “I have no idea what I’m doing… I should’ve thought about it before I said yes. So I am freaked out about it, but you know, I’ve been just told to just be myself and everything will be okay. And so that’s what I’m trying to do is just be me, and I hope I do a good job.”
The ACM Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET/7 CT, with a tape-delayed airing at 8 on the west coast. It can also be seen live on the Paramount Plus app/platform.