Kenny Chesney won his first entertainer trophy from the Academy of Country Music, and he had plenty of time to thank his supporters.
“The Academy of Country Music has always meant a lot to me,” he said. “I won my very first award ever here at the Academy of Country Music, and I want to thank them.” He proceeded to thank his label, his manager, his publicist, his band, crew and truck drivers, and booking agent and several more people involved in his career.
“I want to thank first and foremost — well, not first and foremost — I tell you what, I go on stage every night at 9:15, but our show starts at 2:30 in the afternoon, because all the fans are out there in the parking lot partying and they’ve got our music cranked up, and I want to thank y’all.”
Chesney’s victory was no surprise. He won the CMA entertainer of the year award last year but could barely finish his speech due to time constraints. He didn’t mention his new bride Renee Zellweger’s name from the podium; they married on May 9. She did not attend the show, held at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay.
Keith Urban and Gretchen Wilson carried off two major awards, assuring the music industry (who submitted the ballots) that their individual careers are still exploding.
Urban won for top male vocalist and his Be Here won for album of the year. He accepted the awards from Belfast, Ireland, although he had pre-taped “Days Go By” from a London concert for the telecast.
After stammering in shock for a few seconds after his album’s victory, Urban managed to thank God, the people guiding his career and his fans for the buying the music. He also held up a finger — no, not that one — to the camera.
“Tim McGraw, this is a good-luck ring you gave me at the Grammys. God bless you, brother. We’re coming home.”
Wilson scored an upset victory for female vocalist of the year, over Terri Clark, Sara Evans, Martina McBride and Lee Ann Womack. She choked back tears during her acceptance speech.
“I don’t even know what to say,” she admitted, over the screaming of the crowd. “I don’t even really know what to say, except for thank you. Thank you so much to the fans. Thank you to my record company for believing in me. I never expected this. I never expected it in one short year, to be able to accomplish this. I just love each and every one of you so much. From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate this so much.”
However, Wilson was a no-brainer for the new artist trophy, beating out her pals Big & Rich, as well as Josh Gracin, Julie Roberts and Josh Turner.
“For the last year, I’ve just kinda been winging it,” she said, accepting the new artist award earlier in the show. “You know, I never prepare anything. I’ve just been winging it, and it’s been working out for me. I haven’t prepared anything for this. I have to tell you, I am so appreciative of this. It means the world to me.”
Tim McGraw’s new signature song, “Live Like You Were Dying,” won for single record of the year (given to McGraw and producers Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith) and song of the year (awarded to songwriters Craig Wiseman and Tim Nichols).
“First off, all of us sitting out here know that we wouldn’t be anywhere without a great song,” McGraw said, accepting the trophy for single of the year.
“Tim debuted this song here a year ago, and we were way in the back,” Wiseman said, as he and Nichols accepted the song of the year award. “It’s been a wild year, and now we’re way in the front.”
Nichols thanked “the people we’ve heard from this year, who have told us how much this song means to them. We so appreciate that. It’s been wonderful to experience. Not only do people listen to this music but they take it to their heart, and they use it in their lives every day, and that’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.”
“Whiskey Lullaby,” the somber duet featuring Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss, also captured two awards, in the video and collaboration categories.
“This song has been an incredible thing to be a part of,” Paisley said, accepting the collaboration award. After giving props to RCA Nashville label head Joe Galante for releasing the unlikely single, Paisley thanked country radio and Krauss, who he called the “absolute voice of an angel.”
Clutching the video trophy, director Rick Schroder said, “Thank you, the Academy, for recognizing such a powerful song, and such fine, talented artists as Brad and Alison. What a great opportunity I was given. I thank you very much for the opportunity that Brad and Alison gave me, and Joe Galante and the people at PictureVision. I had a great time making it, and would somebody please give me another job?”
Taking the vocal group trophy, Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox said, “We are so grateful and so humbled by this award. It’s just amazing that you can get this type of stuff for doing something you love so much. First, we just give all thanks to Jesus Christ for leading us down a wonderful path.”
Brooks & Dunn were surprised to win yet another duo trophy.
“This sure felt like the year that y’all were gonna want to hear someone else come up here and say thanks,” Brooks said. “Man, we’re not quittin’, and thanks for giving us a job and keeping us in it.”
Ronnie Dunn added, “We don’t get it. We just know that we’re surrounded by a bunch of people that are a whole lot smarter than us.”
Though he hasn’t been on the radio for about a decade, Neal McCoy proved he has perhaps the most loyal audience in country music. Fans voted him the winner of The Home Depot Humanitarian award, edging out Paisley and Diamond Rio.
“I’m tickled to death,” McCoy said. “This is a big deal. This is a big deal to our community around East Texas, where we spend a lot of time raising money for some great kids and all the troops you’ve seen overseas.”
Toby Keith offered a new song, “As Good As I Once Was,” which he performed from a USO tour in Iraq. Faith Hill delivered “Mississippi Girl,” but the lighting eclipsed her face more than once. Other artists singing on the show included Dierks Bentley, Big & Rich, Evans, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, Sugarland and Womack.
Garth Brooks also emerged from retirement to remember his friend Chris LeDoux, who was posthumously given the Pioneer Award. Brooks read the crowd a touching letter written by LeDoux’s widow, but he first told the cheering audience, “I’m not saying you’re saying this, but I’ve missed you, too.”