Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Maren Morris and Thomas Rhett took the stage to kick off the ACMs in Las Vegas, the same city where — in October — a shooter opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, killing 58 and injuring an estimated 851 people during Aldean’s set on the festival’s main stage.
“Tonight we wanted to open the show with something that shows what it’s like for our country music family to be back in Las Vegas for the first time since Oct. 1,” Aldean said, opening the show.
“We thought about starting with a song, but it’s a lot bigger than a single song,” Aldean added. “It’s everything you’ll hear tonight — the songs that bring us to our feet, make you wanna pull someone close, or just live in the moment. Nothing can take that away from us.”
Lambert, 34, said: “On this night, our country community, the people here in Las Vegas and all of you at home are united through the healing power of music.”
When the camera panned to Bryan, 41, the nominee said: “For those of us who’ve experienced tragedy and unexpected loss, music helps us remember what really matters in life.”
Added 28-year-old Morris: “Music does so much more than provide an escape from the pain. It inspires us, it soothes us and it makes us stronger.”
“It gives us the chance to rejoice in what we have and tell us there’s always a reason to carry on,” said Rhett, 28.
And Aldean poignantly wrapped the tribute, adding: “With respect and love to our friends, family and fans, we celebrate the music tonight. America: This is your ACM Awards.”
Ahead of the show, ACM producers revealed Aldean, 41, helped plan the tribute.
“We took his lead, of what he felt, and the people around him, and he’s come up with an idea, and we worked closely with them, and we were happy with the way it’s coming together,” ACM Awards executive producer Barry Adelman said in a YouTube video.
“This is the elephant in the room,” executive producer R.A. Clark told Billboard of planning the tribute. “We are going to address it right at the top of the show. … I feel like we found the appropriate voices to put to it. Then we have to get into our show — not leave it behind, but focus on what’s ahead of us.”
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Indeed, unity was a common theme throughout the telecast.
On the red carpet outside of the MGM Garden Grand Arena, country music stars wore various gold pins displaying the numbers 851, 58 and 1: memorializing the number of those injured, those who died and lives that can be saved moving on after the tragedy.
“Tonight I’m gonna wear these pins for the 851 injured, the 58 lost and the 1 life we can save in the future if we’re willing to start a conversation about things that need to be done for our children, our families and our fans #851581 #vegasstrong #fansfirst,” Little Big Town singer Karen Fairchild tweeted ahead of the awards.
The 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards are broadcast live from Las Vegas on CBS starting at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday.