Last time around, Kelsea Ballerini was a sprinter on Nashville’s fast track, and she felt more like a stranger at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
“I definitely feel more comfortable this year than I did last year, because I’ll know people more,” she says of Sunday’s awards show, where she is both a performer and double nominee. “It makes a big difference to have friends rather than walking to your room going, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know anyone.’ ”
The 23-year-old nominee for female vocalist of the year will have a hard time avoiding her fellow country stars this year. ACM weekend takes a big leap beyond Sunday’s annual TV broadcast from T-Mobile Arena, with more than 85 performers set for 18 live shows around town.
Ballerini sings Saturday in The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel, one of the events staged under the banner of Party for a Cause, raising money for the academy’s umbrella charity, Lifting Lives.
PARTY WITHOUT A PAUSE
The musical parties will be spread among 13 venues, from proper concert halls to a shopping center parking lot and three casino swimming pools, and scattered from the Strip to Red Rock Resort.
“It’s really fun how the diversity of what we planned worked out,” says Erick Long, who oversees operations and events for the Academy.
If it’s all about the party, you can wade into one with poolside plays by Florida Georgia Line at Mandalay Beach or Old Dominion at the Flamingo.
If you’re serious about the craft of country music — maybe a songwriter yourself — there’s the Songwriter Showcase at the Palms, which pairs stars such as Dierks Bentley with the writers of their hits.
“The awards show sells so well to the (country music) industry, and pretty quickly,” Long says. “But it is a little bit of different crowd that goes to these other events. They know all the stars are in town, so we have tens of thousands of people who come to Vegas just for the events, and that’s evidenced by all these venues filling up.”
This year’s peripheral concerts are almost the polar opposite of last year’s strategy, which centralized at one outdoor site.
The new plan offers a variety of locations and price points but “turned into a little bit of a logistical challenge,” Long admits. “On Saturday night we have three events at the same time. And doing it for charity, we’re trying to be lean (with our staff) so that’s a little bit of a challenge.”
But artists are already asking for tickets to events beyond those they are taking part in, he says. And for new or midlevel performers, “I can give them a stipend to get them out here to the awards show that their labels or managers wouldn’t be able to afford (when they aren’t on tour),” Long says. Those acts get to walk the red carpet and attend the awards and in turn “play one or two of these events. It kind of benefits both.”
Cut yourself some slack if you’re hanging out at the tailgate party outside Stoney’s Rockin’ Country at Town Square on Saturday, and you know William Michael Morgan less by name than when he starts to sing “I Met a Girl.”
The ACMs always run at the speed of Nashville. Last year, Ballerini found herself nominated as best new female vocalist and best female vocalist.
She had to settle for the new female vocalist honor; Miranda Lambert won female vocalist. Ballerini again faces Lambert and Carrie Underwood, which amazes her.
“I wouldn’t even know what it looks like to be a female artist without Carrie and Miranda,” she says. “I grew up with them on the radio.”
Maren Morris is “obviously killing it so hard right now,” she adds, and Kacey Musgraves “I think is the best songwriter in the format. I think it’s really cool to be in that category with them.”
But it’s Ballerini who is setting records. She scored three consecutive No. 1 country hits from her debut album, something no female singer had done since Wynonna Judd in 1992.
She will perform a fourth single, “Yeah Boy,” on Sunday’s show but says that’s it for singles from “The First Time.” Her second album is half done, and “I’m already way more proud of the music I’m going to be putting out later this year than I ever have been,” she says.
“I just feel like I’ve really gotten to discover myself more as a songwriter, and I think that’s really gonna show through on this next album,” she adds. “There is pressure, but I think as long as I feel like I’ve put out something I’m proud of, I can rest easy in that. The rest is kind of not really up to me. It’s up to other people, and I can’t focus too much on that. I just have to put out something I’m really proud of.”
Last year, Ballerini showered off the dust from shooting a video at the dry lake bed near Jean and headed straight to the Britney Spears show — “artist to fan,” she says.
The new album will continue her blend of country and pop that’s become so seamless in the Spotify age. “I’ve always been really open about that pop flair in my music,” she says. “Radio’s really embraced that, and so it made me a lot more bold on this record to really own that country-pop lane.”