Big trucks, big barbecue and big-time shopping converge this weekend when the Academy of Country Music debuts its ACM Experience at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Oh yes, and there will be plenty of music, too, including Steel Magnolia and a Salute to the Military featuring Larry Gatlin and The Gatlin Brothers.
The country music lifestyle event will be the first of its kind in Las Vegas, and it’s slated to run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday . The event is free and open to the public. It is part of the buildup to the 47th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday at the MGM Grand Garden.
The ACM Experience is broken down into three segments: The ACM BBQ Throwdown competition, the Ram Ride and Drive, and the ACM Expo. The expansion is a result of the success of last year’s ACM Fan Jam, a ticketed auxiliary event that ran concurrently with the awards show, said Erick Long, vice president of operations for the ACM. (This year’s Fan Jam, hosted by the Zac Brown Band, continues as a separately ticketed event that ties into the awards show as well as offering additional performances and prizes.)
Ken Tucker, an editor with Country Weekly magazine, said the festivities have expanded significantly since the ACM awards show came to Las Vegas 10 years ago and will only get bigger next year. This year’s organizers are expecting between 10,000 and 30,000 people each day.
"This started out being ‘The Week Vegas Goes Country’ even though it’s really only a few days. It’s growing to that point though," he said.
Even though the event is free, don’t leave the wallet at home. On all three days, Mandalay Bay’s Convention Center will transform into a marketplace. Whether it’s Stetson boots, Roper apparel, jewelry, cowboy furniture, original art, pottery or country music artist merchandise, there will be plenty to see and buy.
A smaller acoustic stage and the larger Country Thunder Stage will have music acts performing throughout the weekend. A Salute to the Military concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, hosted by Robin Meade and including acts Lee Brice, Kip Moore, Thompson Square and others, will benefit the Wounded Warrior Project and Nellis Air Force Base youth programs.
Two-time ACM Award nominee Steel Magnolia will play on the Country Thunder Stage at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. The band is currently working on new material in Nashville. But singer Meghan Linsey is looking forward to playing at the ACM Experience and meeting fans.
"It is a nice common place for everyone to meet up," she added.
Beyond shopping and music, kids can enjoy Wii’s "Country Dance II" or Dr. Pepper tasting inside the "Man Cave," otherwise referred to as the "man sanctuary" with its 55-inch TV with surround sound, couches and many other manly touches. The Coaches’ Trophy granted to college football’s BCS champion will also be on display.
Even for locals who aren’t country music fans, the barbecue alone could be a draw. The $50,000 ACM BBQ Throwdown is organized by Arkansas-based Smoke on the Water Productions, which hosts about a half-dozen competitions a year, some fetching six-figure prize purses. For the ACM Throwdown, 117 teams from the United States and as far away as the U.K., Canada and Japan will compete.
Because of space limitations, Ron Cates, CEO of Smoke on the Water, had to stop taking entrants this year. The event will grow next year, and he already has 60 entrants on a waiting list.
Cates noted there will be plenty of free samples throughout the weekend. Judging starts at noon on Saturday for the main competition; at 2 p.m., competitors will offer samples, with winners announced at 6 p.m. Every half-hour, barbecue experts will conduct cooking demonstrations with free samples as well. Barbecue vendors will be top-notch, too, including award winners Chef Paul Kirk, Florida Skin and Bones, and Kinder’s BBQ.
"This is not just Johnny we picked up off the streets. You have to meet certain criteria to even be involved with this event," Cates added.
The Ram Ride and Drive event is sure to catch the attention of off-road enthusiasts and many others. Five Dodge Ram 1500 Crew Cab Laramie trucks will be on hand to run an outdoor dirt course, which includes a 13-foot-tall, 30-yard-long and 30-degree steep hill. The five-minute experience is open to kids taller than 44 inches and adults who are kids at heart. The trucks will be driven by professional drivers, and at one point of each ride, they will stop at the crest of the hill for a view of the city and event.
"Participants will be sitting 17 feet off the ground. It’ll be a great photo opportunity for folks," said Marissa Hunter, head of advertising for Ram Ride and Drive.
For more information on the ACM Experience, visit www.theacmexperience.com.