2020 ACM Awards: Keith Urban Teases ‘Part Structure, Part Free-Flow’ Format

Keith Urban at the ACM Awards
Russ Harrington/CBS

It’s been nearly two decades since Keith Urban, host of the 2020 ACM Awards, took home his first trophy.

“What I remember most is going back to the hotel and getting a fax slid under the door,” says 2001’s Top New Male Vocalist. “It was from Glen Campbell, who I’d never met: ‘Welcome to the award-winning world. You got it, kid. Glen.'”

He still has that fax, and the 14 ACMs he’s earned since — including 2019 Entertainer of the Year.

Here, Urban helps us preview 2020’s audience-free show, postponed from its traditional spring date in Las Vegas and held in Nashville for the first time.

Three Legendary Locations

The Grand Ole Opry House serves as the centerpiece for the telecast, and welcomes Taylor Swift, who makes her first ACM appearance in seven years to perform “betty.” But two other iconic venues will feature prominently: first, the intimate Bluebird Cafe, where Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw and Luke Combs are among those scheduled to perform live.

“You’re on hallowed ground,” Urban says of this songwriters’ mecca. (On his first trip to Music City, back in 1989, he made a wide-eyed pilgrimage there himself.)

ACM Awards Keith Urban

(Credit: Russ Harrington/CBS)

Then, the historic Ryman Auditorium, revered for its dazzling acoustics. Maren Morris, Thomas Rhett and Old Dominion — the year’s most nominated female, male and group — top the list of artists pretaping performances at the Mother Church of Country Music.

“The first time I saw Merle Haggard and the Strangers there, I felt like I had my head inside the speakers of my dad’s record player,” Urban recalls excitedly. “That was surreal.”

Expect the Unexpected

Entertainer of the Year nominees Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Thomas Rhett, Carrie Underwood and Combs will open the show with a medley of their greatest hits. Underwood will also help celebrate the 95th anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry with a medley of songs by members Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton. The ACM Awards are known for surprise collaborations, so it’s only right that Urban will duet with Pink for the TV debut of their new single, “One Too Many,” off his new album, The Speed of Now Part 1 (out Sept. 18).

Urban says his ideal format is “part structure, part free-flow.” He’d just like to avoid technical difficulties, which he famously experienced at the 2004 ACMs when a faulty outlet for his guitar amp delayed his performance and forced host Reba McEntire to fill. “I’ve always thought, ‘What happens if you’re not ready? What do they do?’ I found out: They just move on!” he says with a laugh. “That’s the terror in live television. It’s indelibly etched into the fear part of my brain!”

55th Academy of Country Music Awards, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 8/7c, CBS