Backstage at the ACM Awards

Wilson, Chesney, Paisley and Other Winners Meet the Press

LAS VEGAS — While visibly moved by the accolades they received from the Academy of Country Music, both Gretchen Wilson and Kenny Chesney stressed the importance of hard work for anyone truly driven to achieve their career goals.

Wilson won female vocalist and new artist honors at the 40th annual ACM Awards show held Tuesday night here at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. Chesney was named entertainer of the year, repeating his achievement in November at the Country Music Association Awards in Nashville.

If Wilson appeared to be surprised when she won the female vocalist, she really was, especially considering the other nominees in the category — Terri Clark, Sara Evans, Martina McBride and Lee Ann Womack.

“I was completely floored,” Gretchen said when she met with reporters backstage. “I didn’t even know what to say. I certainly wasn’t prepared for it. I thought there was a possibility for new artist, and I thought there was a possibility for video, and I thought there was a possibility even elsewhere. [Wilson also garnered nominations in the single and album of the year categories.] But I certainly never expected female vocalist. It completely threw me for a loop. I wasn’t prepared for it. I hope I didn’t sound like a blithering idiot up there. But I’ve been winging it all this time, and it seems to work out.”

Wilson equated winning awards with the feeling of being a kid.

“Everything just races through your mind, and you feel just really proud and really accepted and just really strong — even though at the same time you feel you’re at the weakest you’ve ever been in your life,” she said. “But you feel a certain amount of empowerment. I love getting these awards, and I love being able to hold this certain amount of respect in my hand. But more so than the award, it just makes you feel so good to know that people accept you and people believe in you. It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Wilson soon had tears in her eyes and was forced to grab a tissue to continue talking to the media.

She agreed with one reporter’s observation that dreams sometime really do come true, but she added, “I’ve got to tell you something else: You have to work for it. Dreams don’t just happen. You have to work for it, and you have to take the good with the bad. In the case of what I’m doing, you have to change your life.”

After encouraging others to pursue their dreams, Wilson added, “It’s very hard for me to predict what my career might do. For somebody else, the only thing that I could hope is that anyone else who’s out there that’s hopeful, that doesn’t fit the right mold, that doesn’t weigh exactly a buck twenty, doesn’t have the right color hair and all that stuff that a lot of people seem to think is what you’ve got to be and what you’ve got to have to make it … I hope that if I’ve done anything, I can make those girls out there see that just being yourself, being honest and being real is the most rewarding thing you can do. I can tell you flat-out that I would not want to be standing here holding these awards and talking to you if I hadn’t been completely honest and been myself the whole way.”

In winning the entertainer of the year award, Chesney became only the sixth artist to ever win for new artist, male or female vocalist and entertainer of the year. Others who have achieved the milestone are Brooks & Dunn, the Dixie Chicks, Mickey Gilley, Merle Haggard and Barbara Mandrell.

“This is very special,” he said. “There is no doubt about it. The magnitude, I’m sure, is going to hit me about 2 o’clock in the morning after a few drinks.”

Reporters lobbed a few questions about his recent marriage to actress Renee Zellweger before his personal publicist and another publicist for the ACM called a halt to any inquiries not directly related to his music.

“It’s not that interesting, is it?” Chesney laughed.

Prior to the ban, however, Chesney said he feels much the same as he did two weeks ago — before his wedding on a beach in the Virgin Islands.

“To be honest with you, it’s not that different,” he said. “It’s just that I’m a little more at ease, you know. I’m not searching, and that’s what’s great about her. She’s a great girl. She’s got a movie coming out or she’d be here tonight. She’s wonderful.”

Chesney and Zellweger didn’t get to celebrate their marriage in a way that would make other superstars envious.

“We spent our honeymoon in Little Rock at a show,” he explained. “I had to go right back out there on the road, so we went to Little Rock, Oklahoma City and Dallas and then San Antonio, and then I flew here.”

Chesney was particularly thankful to have won the ACM’s entertainer of the year prize.

“It’s what I feel like I do best,” he said. “Me and the guys get up there, and we throw it at them as hard as we possibly can. … We work very hard on our shows, and I’m honored.”

Noting that award winners are difficult to predict, he said, “I’ve learned throughout the years you can never count on anything. These award shows are really out of your hands, so you just do the best you can possibly do. I didn’t know. Who knows? Maybe they’d vote for Tim [McGraw] because he did a movie or he did this or that. Or they might’ve voted for Toby [Keith] again. He won two years in a row. I just didn’t know. I felt like we had a chance.”

Chesney also offered his interpretation of what the award should represent.

“I feel like the entertainer of the year should bring more people into the format,” he said. “I really believe that people that come to our shows, they like country music, but maybe they didn’t grow up on it. And maybe because of me, they heard my record and went and bought somebody else’s. I think that’s happening a lot with my crowd.”

Asked what advice he’d give young people who aspire to a life in music, Chesney said, “I am a poster boy for hard work. Nothing can replace that. Nothing. Don’t listen to anybody [saying] you can’t do anything. If Gretchen listened to everybody in her hometown telling her she couldn’t do it, she wouldn’t be standing up here with her award tonight. I definitely wouldn’t be holding entertainer of the year if I had listened to everybody in Nashville telling me, ‘There’s no way you can do that.’ And don’t listen to your mom because she’s going to tell you you’re great, no matter what.”

Keith Urban, who was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during a European concert tour, phoned into the pressroom after winning album of the year honors for Be Here but before he received his second award for the night — for male vocalist.

“It’s quite surreal,” Urban said. “I’m pissed off that I’m not there. I’m just really bummed out that I can’t be there.”

Urban said album of the year is the award he most covets.

“Albums are really important to me,” he said. “In an age of downloading [individual] songs and iTunes and things like that, we run the risk of losing the art of albums. I really am grateful for the fact that we get recognized for a body of work instead of just one song.”

Two awards stemmed from “Whiskey Lullaby,” written by Bill Anderson and Jon Randall. Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss shared the vocal collaboration honor. The two vocalists also shared the video award with director Rick Schroder and producer Don LePore.

“You take away from this experience the fact that country music — and story songs like this and the deep subject matter of it — still resonates,” Paisley said. Referring to “the wonderful feeling that you can still get away with still doing something like this,” Paisley elaborated, “it’s a little edgy. And that’s a great song.”

Noting that he had no initial thoughts of the track being released as a single, “When you heard it and you heard Alison’s voice on there, it became this thing without bounds. … It became this thing that you felt needed to be heard by people.”

Likewise, the inspirational “Live Like You Were Dying” brought a single of the year win for Tim McGraw and another song of the year nod for songwriters Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman. The song already received honors from the CMA, the Grammys and the Nashville Songwriters Association International.

Acknowledging that some people in the music industry have asked them to write a similar song for other artists to record, Wiseman said, “You don’t contrive those types of things. You just write your songs every day, and every now and again something amazing happens.”

“You try to write the best song you can and come from an honest place,” Nichols added. “That’s what was kind of coming out of us that day. We’re just so fortunate that people seem to have taken it to heart and touched them somewhere.”

Neal McCoy, a man who hasn’t won many awards, netted a huge one Tuesday night when fans voted him the recipient of The Home Depot Humanitarian award. His charitable work includes the East Texas Angel Network, a nonprofit organization he founded with his wife in their hometown of Longview, Texas. In 11 years, the charity has raised $3 million to assist children with life-threatening illnesses. As a frequent performer on USO tours, McCoy commended Toby Keith for his current series of performances for the troops in the Middle East.

“It means a lot to those troops,” McCoy said. “Believe me, when you’re out there, they don’t have much to look forward to. When they find out that somebody’s coming to see them, it keeps them pumped up for a month in advance and probably two or three months after you leave.”

Rascal Flatts’ status increased when they won the vocal group award.

“Being the only group besides Alabama to win three years in a row is an amazing accomplishment,” lead vocalist Gary LeVox said. “We’re just thrilled to be in the position to make music and do something we love. To be recognized and to win things like this is great. Our first award ever was at the ACMs. … The ACMs have a very special place in our heart.”

And then there was Brooks & Dunn, who scored another in a long line of vocal duo trophies. Ronnie Dunn said he assumed this year’s award would go to Big & Rich or Montgomery Gentry.

“It’s human nature, you know,” said partner Kix Brooks. “People want to pat somebody else on the back … and they call our name out one more time. I don’t know about my partner, but it made an impression on me tonight.”

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