It started as a joint effort by CBS and the Academy of Country Music to mount a musical salute to the troops to coincide with Armed Forces Day on May 17.
It wouldn't have been hard to find country stars willing to participate in such a special. But as Jack Sussman, CBS' exec VP of specials, music and live events, and ACM producers dug into the planning of the event, they came up with a more meaningful approach.
Instead of having C&W artists sing to an audience of servicemembers, they went on a mission to recruit talent from within the military ranks to perform alongside such notables as Merle Haggard, George Strait, Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, Toby Keith, the Band Perry and Florida Georgia Line.
The result is Tuesday's two-hour special "ACM Presents: An All-Star Salute to the Troops." Sussman promises that even the most hardened Marine or battle-scarred Army Ranger won't be able to watch the whole show without shedding a tear. The performances were taped in Las Vegas on April 7, the night after CBS' live telecast of the Academy of Country Music Awards.
"This is a great night of hits performed by some of the biggest stars in country music who are partnered with people who risk their lives for this country every day," Sussman said. "On this night, we let them live out their musical dream. To watch these people perform after you hear the backstories of what brought them into the military -- you can't help but get choked up. The artists were so happy to share that moment with them. There's no acting going on."
Assembling the special took "old-fashioned leg work" on the part of producers to find servicemembers with musical chops. Officials with the Defense Department and USO helped in the search. Some of the participants in the special were found simply by surfing YouTube, as plenty of active military personnel have posted vidclips of songs and performances.
"We were amazed at how many examples we saw of people using music to entertain each other and to alleviate stress. People in the most dangerous situations would take time to play music and share an experience with each other," Sussman said. "We knew that was something we could capture on stage that would be very powerful."
Producers also spent a lot of time going over prospective songs and finding the right fit between artist and servicemember. That involved examining everything from vocal ranges to specific song lyrics. One of the most touching moments comes in a duet between singer Lee Brice and Army Sgt. Christiana Ball on "I Drive Your Truck," Brice's song about a man dealing with the death of his brother in combat overseas.
Carrie Underwood was inspired to write a new song for the occasion, "Keep Us Safe." Proceeds from digital sales of the tune will benefit the ACM's Lifting Lives philanthropic arm. The special also incorporates plugs for several non-profit orgs that support military personnel and their families, including the Wounded Warrior Project, Team Rubicon and Navy SEAL Foundation.
Beyond all of the good vibes that come from showcasing military heroes, the special also delivers in the musical department, Sussman promised.
"When you strip away the lights and the staging and everything else, it's all about two people sharing a musical moment," Sussman said. "In this case one of them happens to be a country music star and the other is someone who has devoted their lives to serving their country. To see these people have their musical moment in the sun -- you can't help but just smile."
(Pictured: Singer Kellie Pickler and Air Force Staff Sgt. Baily Zimmerman)
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