It's been more than six months since a gunman opened fire on a crowd of country music fans at the Route 91 Harvest festival, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500, but that date of October 1st still hovers over Las Vegas. It remains an open wound, something woven into the fabric of this desert community.
Plenty of things have been done to help the city heal – there have been benefit concerts and hundreds of vigils; the upstart Vegas Golden Knights hockey team honors its "Vegas Strong Hero of the Game" at every home game, in which both survivors and first responders have been recognized; and a healing garden was created just days after the biggest mass shooting in modern United States history.
But this weekend's Academy of County Music Awards could prove to be the most potent salve for a grieving city and country-music community. The ACM Awards and its Party for a Cause series of concerts will return to Las Vegas for the 15th time this week, the largest country music gathering in the city since October 1st (which residents have come to refer to as "One October"). Many of the artists who played the Route 91 Harvest festival will return, including Jason Aldean, who was onstage when the shooting began (he returned a week later to visit victims in the hospital.)
But how do the ACM Awards, which have typically been billed as country music's biggest party, address and even exist in a post-Route 91 Las Vegas? Should the country community even be partying?
For the ACMs, the answer is yes, but with an asterisk.
"We've spent a lot of time trying to figure out emotionally where does this show need to begin?" ACM CEO Pete Fisher tells Rolling Stone Country in a Las Vegas cafe adjacent to a bar hanging a banner that reads #VegasStrong. "We're in the business of selling emotion through music, and in order to transfer that emotion you have to connect with the heart first. That has been foremost on our mind, just making sure that every eyeball watching, every person in the room is connected emotionally. But it is a bit of a paradox. How do you meet people where their hearts are at and take them to a party atmosphere? What we've talked about is focusing on the resiliency and the hope and the light and getting to a party. If we don't party, hate won, and that's why we're back in Vegas. It's going to be emotional, but entertaining at the same time."
The ACMs aren't simply a tent-pole television show. There are 17 ACM-sponsored Party for a Cause events around the city beginning Thursday, including a two-day outdoor beach concert at Mandalay Bay, the same hotel where the gunman opened fire from his 32nd floor perch.
Making attendees – especially any survivors of the mass shooting who may attend – feel comfortable and secure at an outdoor venue in the shadow of Mandalay Bay is a priority for the organizers.
"I can't go into specifics, but [security] will be visible and noticeable, and our security measures will be both seen and unseen," Fisher says when asked how the Party for a Cause venues will be secured, adding that they are working with local police and security experts. "We not only want to protect the people who come to these events, but we also want to protect the experience."
While the awards show and the outdoor Bash at the Beach take place at MGM-owned venues, officials with the company refrain from delving into specifics about on-site security.
In a prepared statement, Debra DeShong, Senior Vice President of Global Corporate Communications and Industry Affairs for MGM Resorts International, says, "Security remains a top priority at all MGM Resorts properties, facilities and entertainment venues, and our security team works tirelessly to protect the safety of our guests and employees. We are constantly evaluating and refining our security procedures and work continuously with law enforcement and security experts to ensure major events – and every guest experience – remain safe and enjoyable for everyone."
In the past, the ACMs included NRA Country-sponsored celebrity skeet shoots and a Cabela's archery event in the days ahead of the awards. But, as Fisher points out, the ACM hasn't had a relationship with NRA Country since 2012, and the partnership with outdoor giant Cabela's ended in 2016.
"Those associations were philanthropic with Party for a Cause events," Fisher says, "and we no longer have that association at all."
It's difficult to overstate how hard the October 1st tragedy hit the country music industry. While tourists and those who have never visited may view Las Vegas as a transient town, the county community sees it as a home away from its Nashville home. Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and Shania Twain have all had residency shows in Vegas showrooms and ACM Awards host Reba McEntire just announced a new round of dates for her residency at Caesars with Brooks & Dunn. In December, George Strait will return for another weekend of shows at the T-Mobile Arena on the Strip.
"Every artist in our industry considers Vegas a home, and we rally around one another, so if one of our own were in Vegas is affected, all of us are," Fisher says. "Those words sound kind of trite and superficial, but you can't come up with words that really describe the genuine connection that exists between the country music community and Las Vegas. Vegas is not just another city for country artists. It's not just another gig."
In a promotional video for the ACM Awards, many artists who have performed at the Route 91 festival in the past spoke about how it is essential that they continue to support the city.
"I think the reason it's important to bring it back to Vegas and for people to come is because you can't let something like that stop you," said ACM New Male Vocalist of the Year Brett Young, who performed at Route 91 the day before the shooting.
"It's crucial that we go back," added Michael Ray in the video.
Undeniably, this year will have a different feel than other ACM Awards weekends. While the awards themselves are a key part of the broadcast, it's less about winners and losers this time. Instead, it's about the resiliency of a city and the country community – and about recognizing the first responders who ran toward danger on country music's most horrific night.
"If you have a heart, you're going to need to bring a tissue," Fisher said. "The beauty of country music is how they open their hearts and share them so freely and authentically. You're going to see some very honest emotion come off that stage."
(Mark Gray wrote about his first-person experience at the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting for Rolling Stone.)