Natalie Maines may have donned the T-shirt, but it was Toby Keith who wore the pants at the Academy of Country Music awards, held Wednesday (May 21) in Las Vegas.
With eight nominations, Keith won the entertainer of the year trophy, his first victory in that category. However, he apparently left the ceremony early, so Vince Gill and host Reba McEntire — fellow Oklahomans — accepted on his behalf.
Perhaps Keith was on a flight to Austin, Texas, to put a boot in Maines’ you-know-what. Beamed in from a Dixie Chicks concert in Austin to sing “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams),” Maines wore a shirt with the letters “F.U.T.K.” Considering their public battles, it can be assumed the last two letters signify “Toby Keith,” and the first two letters probably don’t need to be deciphered.
Live performances dominated the first 30 minutes of the program, until Kenny Chesney won the evening’s first award for single of the year (“The Good Stuff”). But later in the show, when his name was called in the top male vocalist category, Chesney found George Strait in the audience and hugged him. Then he took the stage and emotionally tried to regain his composure. “Thank you” was all he could say.
Martina McBride claimed her second consecutive award for top female vocalist. “I want to use my time up here to just say that sitting out here and watching this show tonight, I am so proud of country music and the songs that we’re making and the performances that were done tonight. And I’m proud to be a part of country music,” she said.
Alan Jackson won for top video, “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” and album, Drive, while Rascal Flatts earned group and song honors for “I’m Movin’ On.”
Strait was honored with the Gene Weed Special Achievement Award, recognizing his 50 No. 1 hits. “I knew I was going to get this so I cheated,” Strait said as he pulled a list of people to thank out of his jacket pocket. “But in order to read this …” he added, then plucked his reading glasses out of his other pocket, to the delight of the audience.
“All my fans out there who have stuck with me all these years, just one thing: I’m not done until you say I’m done,” Strait concluded.
Giving the trophy to Strait, Jackson said, “You’re a class act and always have been. What I like about you … is you never had to tear holes in your jeans or grow a goatee or anything. You don’t follow any trends. You don’t have to, because I figured out you’re just naturally cool. You’re naturally cool.”
Calling it quits after more than two decades in the business, Alabama said farewell with their first No. 1 hit, “Tennessee River.” Chesney then presented the Pioneer Award to the band.
“I saw them for the first time in Knoxville, Tenn., many years ago in the middle of a field, and it forever changed my life,” Chesney said. “Their achievements may never be equaled and I wanted to personally come out here and thank them for giving everything to their music, to their fans, to country music and for changing my life.”
Brooks & Dunn took their 18th ACM award, for top vocal duo. “[Show producer] Dick Clark said 30 seconds,” said Ronnie Dunn. “We could spend the rest of our lives thanking you for this and the way you’ve changed our lives. Stick with us, please. We love ya.”
Winning a trophy for top new male vocalist, Joe Nichols said, “First of all, thank God for all the blessings he’s given me the past year. It’s been a great year for me.”
Kellie Coffey won top new female vocalist. “I remember growing up in Oklahoma watching this show and watching Miss Reba McEntire, who’s from Oklahoma, accepting her awards and thinking maybe there’s a chance for this little girl from Oklahoma. And here I am!”
The six-man Canadian group Emerson Drive took the top new group award. Lead singer Brad Mates said, “We want to thank this great country for letting us have an opportunity to share our music with everybody.”
The ceremony was held at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino. McEntire joked, “Actually all the hotels wanted to get involved. Well, not the Paris Hotel. You know the French.”
Willie Nelson (who McEntire referred to as “The Herbal American”) and Lee Ann Womack won the vocal event award for “Mendocino County Line.” Lonestar carried the Home Depot Humanitarian Award and honored three P.O.W.s during a performance of “I’m Already There.”
Three artists — Alabama, Joe Nichols and George Strait — also thanked record executive Tony Brown, who sustained a head injury in April. McEntire also paid her respects to the late June Carter Cash.