Only at the ACMs: Brooks & Dunn Set Career Mark

LOS ANGELES — Brooks & Dunn became the winningest act in the history of the Academy of Country Music awards Wednesday night (May 22) when they picked up three awards for a total of 16, moving them past Merle Haggard on the all-time list.

“We’ve got a bubble-blowing goat,” explained Ronnie Dunn. “We’ve got a guy who crawls through a toilet seat. We’ve got the most beautiful wives in the world. We’ve got wonderful, healthy children, and we live in the greatest country in the world! Thank you! Somebody take a picture. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Kix Brooks added, “Hey, to you fans, you can’t imagine what a reward this is. … Playing for you all is reward enough, but this is incredible. Thank you very, very much for hanging in there with us. God love every one of you. Thank you all very, very much.”

The duo also won awards for top vocal duo and video of the year. They last won the ACM entertainer of the year honor in 1997. “We weren’t ready to ride off into the sunset,” Brooks said backstage.

Alan Jackson , also a triple winner, drew a standing ovation and extended applause when “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” his anthem to the people and events of Sept. 11, was named song of the year.

Jackson gave an emotional acceptance speech in which he said, “Without humbling y’all to death up here, I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the attention that this song has brought to me, and I was always uncomfortable about what it was written about. I’m still angry and sad and forever changed by what happened that day, and I thank God for sending the words and music down to me, because I believe I was an instrument for that, for whatever reason. I don’t feel like I can accept an award for this song without sharing it with, and dedicating it to, the thousands of people — men, women and children — who died or suffered and are still suffering because of that cowardly and heartless attack on America and mankind. This is for all of you.”

Jackson, who had not won an ACM award since 1996, also won single of the year for “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and male vocalist of the year. “I thought I was past this already,” he said of the male vocalist honor, “but I really appreciate everybody including me in this.”

Brooks & Dunn’s patriotic video for “Only in America,” mixed live shots from a performance at the Columbia River Gorge in George, Wash., and images of the American heartland. The video was shot last May, before the events of Sept. 11. “It took on a real special significance four months later,” said director Michael Merriman backstage.

“Patriotism is not old-fashioned,” Dunn said backstage. “It’s the new, hip thing.”

Percussionist Sheila E. joined Brooks & Dunn for their performance of their current, Latin-tinged single, “My Heart Is Lost to You.”

Toby Keith debuted a new single, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” which host Reba McEntire said was “based on his father’s feelings about standing up for his country” and featured strong words for the perpetrators of the events of Sept. 11. He played a red, white and blue guitar and the stage was adorned with flags. The crowd waved small individual American flags as well. Though Keith had six nominations, he came away empty-handed in the trophy count.

Hank Williams Jr. and Kid Rock may have provided the highlight of the night, however, with their performance of “The F Word,” their on-the-edge duet about saying “hells and damns,” but not the forbidden utterance.

“I’ve got a lot of friends out there,” Hank Jr. said backstage. “I saw a lot of them on the front row [drops his jaw] hee-hawing.”

McEntire hosted the three-hour telecast on CBS from the Universal Amphitheatre. “This is country’s party of the year,” she said at the outset. “Anytime you get Willie Nelson , Kid Rock, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn in the same room, you’re gonna have a party.”

Faith Hill and Tim McGraw were caught in traffic at the outset of the show. “Tim’s handsome, talented and young,” McEntire said. “Faith’s beautiful, talented and young. Can we get [producer] Dick Clark out here to stand by me?”

McEntire earned the fan-voted Home Depot Humanitarian Award. She was recognized for her work with health care issues, such as pediatrics, breast cancer and AIDS. Other organizations who have benefited from McEntire’s efforts include the Salvation Army, First Book, U.S.A. Harvest, Muscular Dystrophy Assocation and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

In her acceptance speech, McEntire said, “I know you’ve all heard the saying when we were little ol’ kids, ’It’s better to give than to receive.’ When I was a kid, I didn’t believe that for a second. But the older I got, I realized that the greatest lesson you can learn is to give.”

Top female vocalist Martina McBride thanked McEntire in her acceptance speech. “There is a woman who has set the standard for all of us females in country music,” McBride said. “She is a friend, a mentor and a tremendous inspiration, and of course I’m talking about Reba McEntire. Thank you, Reba. I’m taking this home in your honor.” The award was McBride’s first at the ACMs. Earlier in the evening, she gave a stirring performance of “Where Would You Be.”

Lonestar won for top vocal group, the band’s fourth ACM trophy and their first victory in the vocal group division. Keyboard player Dean Sams was on hand to accept the honor for the other members of the band (he was joined on stage by a friend, Kirby Middleton, from a sponsorship company). The group has heard from many fans who were affected by Lonestar’s hit “I’m Already There,” said Sams, who added, “Thank you for letting us be a small part of your life through our music.”

Album of the year went to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Producer T Bone Burnett was in the studio and could not be on hand to accept. The victory completes a sweep of album of the year categories in the Country Music Association, Grammy and Academy of Country Music Awards.

“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was named vocal event of the year. “They don’t need no more,” said presenter Trace Adkins, “so I’m gonna give it to [co-presenter] Tara Lipinski.”

Carolyn Dawn Johnson took top new female vocalist. She accepted her honor from longtime friend Jamie O’Neal . “I was in the category with her last year when she won,” Johnson said backstage, “and it was very exciting this year when she got to hand it to me. It was awesome.” The Canada native, 31, also explained that it has been 11 years since she decided to dedicate herself completely to a career as a songwriter and singer.

At the end of a segment dedicated to artists who died in the past year, Hank Jr. paid tribute to Waylon Jennings . “What a man, what a friend and what a life,” Williams said before singing his song, “The Eyes of Waylon.”

Trick Pony took their first ACM award, for top new vocal duo or group. “I got my mama here,” said Keith Burns. “She flew all the way from Atlanta; she’s probably wetting her pants right now.”

Animated bassist Ira Dean added, “I want to thank Tanya Tucker for firing me in 1996.” Later, backstage, he said, “It seems like there’s never a time not to celebrate, lately.” The remark prompted a chuckle from singer Heidi Newfield.

Phil Vassar pulled off a mild upset with his victory as top new male vocalist. Opponents Chris Cagle and Blake Shelton have had bigger hits, but in the CMT Pre-Show, both men predicted a Vassar victory. “It feels awesome,” Vassar said backstage. “I think I kinda needed a little shot. Sometimes, in your career you need a little something to boost you to the next stage. This might be it.”

The RCA Label Group, which includes the RCA, BNA and Arista labels, won 10 of the 13 awards handed out in performance categories. Only Trick Pony and the O Brother-related awards did not go to RLG acts.

Alabama debuted a new single, “I’m in the Mood,” said to be their last for RCA Records. In a backstage interview with Dick Clark, Randy Owen announced that the band will make a farewell tour in 2003. “We’ve decided it’s time to plan our farewell tour,” he remarked, “and hopefully take it coast to coast to reach all the fans that have been there for us the past 25 years. This farewell tour will be a blast from sea to shining sea!”

The Pioneer Award, for career achievement, went to Ronnie Milsap . Mark Chesnutt , Joe Diffie and Tracy Lawrence serenaded the honoree with “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life.” Thirty-five of his hits, including “It Was Almost Like a Song,” “Any Day Now” and “Lost in the Fifties Tonight,” have reached No. 1 on the Billboard country charts.

Milsap credited Charley Pride with persuading him to come to Nashville and pursue a career in country music. His son Todd joined Milsap on stage. He also thanked his wife of 36 years, Joyce. “Woo,” Milsap exclaimed. “What a night to remember!”

Craig Shelburne contributed to this story.

Complete coverage of the 37th Annual ACM Awards.