ACM Backstage With the Winners

Willie, Martina, Brooks & Dunn, Dierks, Randy and Rascal Flatts Comment on the Night

LAS VEGAS – Backstage at the Academy of Country Music Awards, Willie Nelson had the best line of the night when he commented on being presented this year’s Gene Weed Special Achievement Award. “At first,” he said, “I thought it was the green weed award.”

Even the late Gene Weed would have found humor in Nelson’s marijuana reference. Nelson and the longtime ACM executive were close friends, but Wednesday’s (May 26) awards show also honored one of Nelson’s other close friends, vocalist Ray Price, who received the ACM’s Pioneer Award for his work in widening the popularity of country music.

Nelson noted that one of his first songwriting contracts in Nashville was with a publishing company Price owned.

“My second job in Nashville was playing bass in Ray Price’s band, so I was a Cherokee Cowboy,” Nelson said. “I had a lot of fun traveling around and playing. We’ve been friends that long. We wrote songs together and have made a lot of music together and had a lot of fun together. We’re still having it. I saw him tonight, and he looks great.”

Nelson, who suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, returns to the doctor this week to have the stitches removed from recent surgery on his left hand. He said the pain is now gone. Nelson said he had hoped to avoid the surgery even after canceling a series of concerts. “I decided I should take a few days off,” he explained. “When I did realize that rest really wasn’t going to it, I took the advice of three doctors and had some the surgery done.” Nelson plans to perform at his annual Fourth of July picnic and concert at the Fort Worth Stockyards — and a concert the day before at the UFO Festival in Roswell, N.M.

During other visits to the backstage pressroom, two acts again acknowledged that their multi-year winning streaks will eventually end.

On her third consecutive female vocalist win, Martina McBride said, “It’s really overwhelming. You dream of walking up on that stage and hearing your name called. You really only hope for it to happen one time. Intellectually, you realize that it’s going to be somebody else’s turn at some point. So I just felt really grateful tonight to be included and to still be part of the party of country music.”

As for Brooks & Dunn’s unprecedented record in the vocal duo category, Ronnie Dunn went to the awards show thinking, “We’re gonna get clobbered.”

“It’s harder all the time now,” Kix Brooks elaborated. “That’s kind of where we get a lot of our drive. Especially 11 awards, it’s just stupid for us to think about it. Eleven times they said our name. We know there’s gonna come that year, and they’re not gonna say ’Brooks & Dunn.’ So every year, you’ve got to work that much harder because people are obviously looking for the underdog and somebody else you can go out and cheer for.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Dierks Bentley wasn’t taking anything for granted in winning the top new artist prize.

“For me, I just consider myself a country music fan — first and foremost,” Bentley said. “My favorite people in the world are all in that building out there. That actually makes me nervous being here. But to be recognized by them and people in the industry and fans that are involved is just an amazing feeling.”

Noting a desire to build upon the success he’s already enjoyed, Bentley said, “This year, I opened up for George Strait and Kenny Chesney. I really don’t know where to go from there. I’m not sure what we’re going to do. I’m putting together a tour maybe later on this year with Cross Canadian Ragweed. I’m not sure if that’s happening or not. But if I do a tour on my own scale, instead of catering every day, we’ll be going to Taco Bell.”

Randy Travis’ recording of “Three Wooden Crosses” was edged out for single record of the year, but it did result in a song of the year for him and songwriters Kim Williams and Doug Johnson. Not only did the song revitalize his career, it’s also presenting new opportunities.

“We’re sitting right now with a script that was written around ’Three Wooden Crosses,'” he said. “A company in Los Angeles is truly interested in making a TV movie of that.”

Rascal Flatts scored a second consecutive win in the vocal group category. After a summer tour with Chesney, the trio will be embarking on a fall tour as headliners. Referring to two previous tours as headliners at clubs and theaters, band member Jay DeMarcus said, “It’s been an incredible thing to know that people weren’t there to see Toby [Keith] or Brooks & Dunn. We finally got our feet wet headlining our own shows. It was great to know those people were there to see us. It was wonderful to come face to face with all those fans. We’re looking forward to doing it again at the end of the year.”

DeMarcus’ bandmates — Gary LeVox and Joe Don Rooney — chided him for not telling them he was featured as a background vocalist on a new recording of the ’80s rock hit, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” by Bret Michaels, who first recorded the song as lead singer for Poison. DeMarcus explained that he recorded the track at an informal session during a party Michaels was hosting at a Nashville recording studio.

“I sang the song all the way down maybe two times,” DeMarcus said. “The next thing I hear — actually from Gary first — was that he heard the song on the radio. Honestly, I had no idea that the song was released or I was a part of it or they were using my name. I had no clue.” Joking, he added, “And that million bucks he paid me to do it, he said it was just a love offering. I just thought he really liked me.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.