Keith’s ACM Absence Prompts Backstage Chatter

LAS VEGAS — Where was Toby Keith, anyway?

By the conclusion of Wednesday night’s (May 21) Academy of Country Music Awards show, the question was crossing the minds of many people. Not the least of those were Vince Gill and Reba McEntire, who found themselves stretching for time on the live CBS-TV broadcast. The adlibs were necessary after Keith failed to materialize when Gill called his name to accept one of the ACM’s most prestigious honors — the entertainer of the year award. Keith’s absence was painfully obvious, especially since he and Willie Nelson had performed their duet, “Beer for My Horses,” earlier in the show.

At a backstage press conference, Gill was asked about Keith’s whereabouts. “Couldn’t tell you,” Gill replied. Then, referring to Kenny Chesney’s acceptance speech after winning the ACM’s male vocalist prize, Gill joked, “I thought about getting Kenny up there, and maybe he could have gathered his thoughts this time.”

McEntire, who hosted the awards show at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, also acknowledged that Keith’s absence was unexpected at the close of the three-hour telecast. “I don’t know where he was, but it wasn’t as awkward being with Vince as it would have been if I’d been up there by myself,” McEntire said. “I love Vince with all my heart. He’s my buddy. He’s my pal. We’ve toured together, we’ve recorded together and we’ve been through some tough times together. He was always right there for me. I sure was glad he was there for me tonight, too.”

If Keith has now created a minor controversy within the country music industry, it’s clear that some fans still haven’t forgiven the Dixie Chicks for Natalie Maines’ comment about the president more than two months ago. While several boos were heard when the Chicks’ satellite performance from Austin, Texas, was introduced, Gill said the backlash seems to be declining. “The last time I was in front of a big crowd was at the [CMT] Flameworthy Awards,” he said. “It was pretty volatile that night. It wasn’t nearly as volatile tonight, so you know … get past it and press on.”

McEntire, who did not attend the previous awards show, had a different take when she was asked if the Dixie Chicks’ performance Wednesday would help put an end to the controversy. She said, “Didn’t sound like it. I announced it, and it was a pretty big negative response. It was very, very bad. I don’t think it’s over.” McEntire was also asked what advice she would offer the Chicks. She replied, “When they ask for it, I’ll give it. I don’t think that will happen, though.”

Gill, a veteran at hosting the Country Music Association Awards each fall, gave high marks to Wednesday’s show presented by the California-based ACM.

“This was a good show,” he said. “I’ve seen a bunch of them in 20 years. … I thought the production was great.” He added, “The people are obviously having a little more fun because they’re up here drinking a little bit and gambling a little bit. It loosens everybody up.”

In other backstage activity:

After winning the vocal group award in a division that included Diamond Rio, the Dixie Chicks, Lonestar and Trick Pony, Rascal Flatts’ bassist Jay DeMarcus said, “I’m just kind of numb right now. I think we were shocked. We were in the category with some of our heroes, and it’s just amazing to be holding this trophy right now. Sometimes we look around and go ‘Should we be here?’”

Rascal Flatts’ recording of “I’m Movin’ On” resulted in a song of the year win for songwriters Phillip Brian White and David Vincent Williams. DeMarcus noted, “We felt like that song deserved to win just because of the lives it touched and changed. Not because of our involvement, but simply on the merit of the song alone. It’s just one of those songs that’s just a masterpiece. Somebody from any phase of life can relate to it, and I think that’s what makes it so powerful.”

Martina McBride, who picked up another ACM win as top female vocalist, said it’s always exciting to hear her name announced. “It never gets old,” she said. “This is something that’s such a thrill and such an honor. But it is different each year. Each year you have different circumstances in your career, you have different songs, different singles, different life experiences. So it takes on a different feel each year.”

McEntire received the ACM Leading Lady award and was presented a silver bowl for her achievements and contributions to the ACM.

Top new male vocalist winner Joe Nichols was nominated in the category with two of his friends, Darryl Worley and Blake Shelton. In light of their track records, Nichols wasn’t expecting to win. “The other two guys that were in the category have had spectacular years, especially Darryl with ‘Have You Forgotten?’ getting so big. They’ve also both been out a lot longer than me, and I just thought it might take a little longer for me to actually bring one of these [trophies] home.” Asked whether he is “the next Alan Jackson,” Nichols smiled and said, “I can’t answer that. If I could answer that, I’d be out there on the blackjack table, foreseeing the future.”

Kellie Coffey had trouble finding a signal on her cell phone after being named top new female vocalist. “I just called my folks on the phone. I had to go out to the loading dock because that was the only place you could get service. I couldn’t even understand what they were saying. They were drinking, and it was great.”

Emerson Drive was formed in Canada, but lead vocalist Brad Mates was quick to express his appreciation for the U.S. after winning top new vocal group/duo honors. “This is unreal for us,” he explained. “We started this band eight years ago in my parents’ basement. To be a part of this country now and to be doing the bulk of our work down here and having people accept us is probably one of the greatest feelings we’ve ever experienced.”

Lonestar received the Home Depot Humanitarian of the Year award in a fan-voted category. Lead vocalist Richie McDonald noted, “The great thing about the country industry, in general, is that everyone gives back. It really means a lot that they … chose us for this award, but honestly, it should go to the whole community. There are a lot of big hearts in country music.”