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ACMs return to Las Vegas with a purpose beyond the party

This combination photo shows, from left, Carrie Underwood, Bebe Rexha, Keith Urban and Julia Michaels who will perform at the Academy of Country Music Awards, on April 15 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Six months after a mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music festival, the genre's biggest stars are heading back to the city with a purpose and a message beyond just country music's biggest night to party.

    The Academy of Country Music Awards is returning to Vegas on Sunday and many artists say they are looking forward to showing their support for the fan community and each other after the tragedy at the Route 91 Harvest Festival last October. A lone gunman killed 58 people and hundreds more were injured in the nation's deadliest mass shooting.

    "Hopefully it's going to be a time of healing and kind of remembering but also moving forward in a positive way, stronger than we were before," said Phillip Sweet of the vocal group Little Big Town, nominated for three awards.

    The ACMs, which will air live on CBS at 8 p.m. Eastern, have long billed themselves as a party atmosphere, and CEO Pete Fisher said the producers behind the show wanted to be respectful as well as put on a great event.

    "I think you can honor who we have lost in a very genuine way, but then we do want to move onto the party," Fisher said. "I think it will be a somber moment leading into a hopeful moment, leading into a party moment."

    The show will feature top crossover collaborations between Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line, whose hit duet "Meant to Be" has dominated the country airwaves, as well as Keith Urban and Julia Michaels' new song, "Coming Home," which is based on a Merle Haggard guitar riff.

    Another highly anticipated moment is Carrie Underwood's debut of a new song called "Cry Pretty." It will be her first television appearance after sustaining an injury to her face and wrist last year due to a fall at her home.

    "She has a specific vision on how she wants this new music to be experienced by the home viewer," said executive producer R.A. Clark.

    The show will also include three flashback moments to hit songs from 25 years ago by pairing the original artists with new artists. Alan Jackson will sing his hit "Chattahoochee" with Jon Pardi; Toby Keith will perform his No. 1 debut single of 1993, "Should've Been a Cowboy," with Blake Shelton; and this year's show host, Reba McEntire, will perform her Grammy-winning song "Does He Love You" with Kelly Clarkson.

    Clark said he doesn't want to give away any details, but the show will address the shooting as well as efforts to help those affected by the event. ACM has committed $400,000 to victim relief funds, including money to start a new chapter of Musicians On Call, which brings musicians to hospitals to meet with patients.

    For many musicians, the city has been the site of special memories, from playing live concerts to winning awards.

    "I love Las Vegas. I met my wife there. I got engaged there," said Dierks Bentley, who is nominated for video of the year. "It's been a struggle for everyone. This place we love so much is the site of the worst shooting in our country."

    Even Jason Aldean, who was onstage when the shooting started, said he's not going to let that tragedy change his perception of the city.

    "I've had some really career defining-type moments: Winning my first award there in '06 and winning entertainer of the year, male vocalist and all the stuff that I have ever done in Vegas," said Aldean, who is nominated for entertainer of the year and male vocalist of the year. "I have one really horrible memory from Las Vegas but I have a thousand great ones. I still love the city."

    "It's not just another city," said Fisher. "It's a home away from home. Las Vegas for the country community is very much like a family reunion."

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