Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood and Brooks & Dunn were the only artists winning multiple awards Tuesday night (May 23) at the 41st annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas.
Paisley was the top winner, picking up an album of the year nod for Time Well Wasted and two additional awards for “When I Get Where I’m Going,” his collaboration with Dolly Parton. Underwood, who was named top new female vocalist, also won in the single of the year category for her hit, “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” As expected, Brooks & Dunn walked away with the top duo of the year honor for yet another year, and a song of the year nod went to “Believe,” written by Ronnie Dunn and Craig Wiseman.
Kenny Chesney won the coveted entertainer of the year trophy. Other winners during the show at the MGM Grand included Jason Aldean, Sugarland, Rascal Flatts, Sara Evans and Keith Urban.
In accepting the album of the year award, Paisley gave special thanks to Frank Rogers, who produced the project with Chris DuBois. Recalling the early days of their friendship at Nashville’s Belmont University, Paisley said, “He’s been with me since we used to stay up late … in the studio at Belmont.”
Earlier in the evening, Paisley, vocal partner Dolly Parton and video director Jim Shea won music video honors for “When I Get Where I’m Going.” Backstage, Paisley noted, “This song means a lot to me because I lost someone close to me a couple of years ago, and I’d like to dedicate this to both my aunt and my grandfather. My grandfather would be complaining that he wasn’t in it [the video] more. It’s the first video I’ve had my family in, so it means a lot to me.”
Carrie Underwood also credited her producer, Mark Bright, for the success of “Jesus, Take the Wheel.”
“I can’t quit crying now,” she said. “There’s so many people to thank. But this award is really about this man here. I want to give a special thanks to him, and congratulations to you, Mark.”
In returning to the stage to collect her top new female vocalist prize, Underwood thanked individuals at her record label, management company and others directly involved in her career before adding, “My fans, my family, my friends. And, of course, I wouldn’t be here if God hadn’t opened all the doors for me, so thank you, God.”
Ronnie Dunn and Craig Wiseman shared the song of the year award for the Brooks & Dunn hit, “Believe.” Dunn recalled, “I was in my barn last year, and this guy comes crashing through the door with this idea for a song. He had the chorus written, and I just sat him down on the sofa and put a notepad on the coffee table and hung on while he channeled.” Dunn added, “So many people went out on a limb to push this song. So many people went beyond the call of duty.”
Wiseman added, “There’s a lady in Hattiesburg, Miss., named Elma Dennis that called me one night and told me my songs came from God. Elma, your faith touched me. You believe, and I believe.”
Regarding their sixth consecutive ACM win as vocal duo, Kix Brooks acknowledged, “This is kind of my partner’s night tonight. I can’t take much credit. He wrote that wonderful song with Craig Wiseman, ’Believe.’ It’s really fun to be part of something so strong and so special.”
In accepting the top award of the evening, repeat winner Kenny Chesney said, “It’s really hard to be entertainer of the year and not have the amount of people on the road that mean as much to me as my band and my crew, the catering people and the truck drivers. Everybody. I want to thank them. … I want to thank my family back home that I don’t get to see a lot of. And my dad, I want to say hey to him. His wife passed away three weeks ago, and I know he’s watching tonight. … And more importantly, to all the very passionate people that come and see us play every night, it’s the most amazing time.”
Jason Aldean, who scored his first No. 1 last week with “Why,” edged out stiff competition from Billy Currington and Craig Morgan to be named top new male vocalist. Clearly surprised by the win, Aldean said, “I didn’t think I was going to be this nervous.” After thanking his family, record label and booking agency, he added, “And, man, if I can follow in the footsteps of the guys that have won this before me, I’ll be doing all right. So thank you very much.”
Likewise, Sara Evans appeared to be truly shocked at her female vocalist win over Martina McBride, Gretchen Wilson, Lee Ann Womack and Carrie Underwood.
“Oh, my gosh!” Evans said. “Thank you so much. I just want to thank God for all the blessings in my life, my husband Craig …. the fans, my mom and dad, all my brothers and sisters. I’ve waited for this my whole life.”
Keith Urban, who repeated last year’s win as top male vocalist, said, “Thank you so much to the Academy. Everybody who voted, I appreciate it more than you know. … To everybody who keeps buying music, I really appreciate that. We all do. We appreciate it so much.”
Sugarland won in the top new duo of vocal group category, but existing members Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush made no onstage mention whatsoever of former member Kristen Hall, who exited the group in January after co-writing much of the group’s debut album.
“Thank you so much,” Nettles told the crowd. “This is the first award we’ve ever won that’s actually for country music, and it’s so exciting.”
Bush thanked their band, road crew and two artists they’ve toured with — Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney — and wished his son, Tucker, a happy fourth birthday.
Rascal Flatts gained a fourth consecutive ACM award in the top vocal group division. “Everybody that’s part of this wonderful, wonderful ride, thank you so much,” band member Jay DeMarcus said. “God bless each and every one of you.”
Three industry awards were presented prior to the televised portion of the show. The ACM announced four winners of its Pioneer Award — Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens, singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, banjo legend Earl Scruggs and the late bluegrass music pioneer, Bill Monroe. The Tex Ritter Award, in recognition of films about country music, went to the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. The Jim Reeves Memorial Award, in recognition of promoting music around the world, went to the late Louise Scruggs, who steered husband Earl Scruggs’ career as a member of Flatt & Scruggs and later as a solo performer.
Brad Paisley opened the show on an upbeat note with “The World.” With globe-shaped beach balls bouncing throughout the audience and onstage, Paisley complemented his assured vocal with a blistering guitar solo.
Trace Adkins raised the temperature of the room when he was surrounded by a bevy of scantily-clad Las Vegas showgirls as he reprised his suggestive hit, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” Afterwards, awards show host Reba McEntire — who did a masterful job throughout the evening — quipped, “I’ve got my own clothing line, girls. I could make you a great deal.”
Two of the evening’s emotional highlights were provided by duos Big & Rich and Brooks & Dunn. With a spoken introduction by Kris Kristofferson, who provided the narration on the original recording, Big & Rich sang “8th of November,” their ballad about a battle in Vietnam, as the front of the stage filled with Purple Heart recipients who served in the armed forces dating back to World War II. And with Keith Urban providing the guitar accompaniment for Brooks & Dunn’s “Believe,” Ronnie Dunn’s vocal provided another reminder that he is one of the greatest singers in the history of country music.
And lest anyone not believe in Carrie Underwood’s future as a country singer, her delivery of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” stopped the audience in its tracks. Gretchen Wilson got some vocal help from Merle Haggard — albeit in a prerecorded part that ran on a video screen — on her current single, “Politically Uncorrect.”
Two artists opted for performances outdoors. Kenny Chesney sang “Summertime” on the faux beach at a luxury hotel, and Rascal Flatts set up shop in front of the MGM Grand to perform the title song from their latest album, Me and My Gang. The trio also teamed with pop sensation Kelly Clarkson for “What Hurts the Most.”
Other performers included Miranda Lambert (“New Strings”), Toby Keith (“A Little Too Late”), Dierks Bentley (“Settle for a Slowdown”), Montgomery Gentry (“Something to Be Proud Of”), Little Big Town (“Boondocks”), Keith Urban (“Tonight I Wanna Cry”) and Sara Evans (“Coalmine”). Sugarland also performed their current single, “”Down in Mississippi (Up to No Good).”
Celebrating the career of the late Buck Owens, actor Vince Vaughn introduced a segment featuring Dwight Yoakam, Brad Paisley, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and former Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers member Chris Hillman. Yoakam and Hillman harmonized on “Act Naturally” and “Together Again,” and Gibbons sang “Crying Time.” Paisley took the lead guitar solo on Owens’ signature instrumental, “Buckaroo,” but was overpowered in the sound mix by steel guitarist Tom Brumley. It wasn’t Brumley’s fault, and Paisley was no doubt honored to be playing with the former member of Owens’ band. Buddy Alan, Owens’ son, and Yoakam closed the tribute with a rousing version of “Streets of Bakersfield.”
Another emotional moment came as Vince Gill accepted the ACM/The Home Depot Humanitarian Award when he paid tribute to Grand Ole Opry star Billy Walker, who was killed Sunday (May 21) in a traffic accident that also claimed the life of Walker’s wife Bettie and band members Charles Lilly and Daniel Patton.
In accepting the trophy, Gill noted, “The beauty of this award is that it honors the giving spirit. I have a wife that has an even better giving spirit than I do, in Amy Grant. You inspire me greatly every day.” Gill then presented the trophy to young girl named Caitlin, who had been seeking autographs at the event. Gill met the child earlier this week through the Make-a-Wish Foundation that grants wishes to seriously ill children.