LAS VEGAS — As he often does, Kenny Chesney turned nostalgic when he started talking about winning his third consecutive entertainer of the year trophy from the Academy of Country Music on Tuesday night (May 15) in Las Vegas. Chesney, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood were among the winners who fielded questions from the media backstage at the MGM Grand.
“When I was in college, I was the guy who would go the music store, and I would rent all my sound equipment, put it in the back of my truck and drive to every bar in East Tennessee and even in Virginia,” he said, speaking fast from his excitement. “I would play, tear it down, put it back in the truck and drive back to Johnson City, Tenn., to the parking lot of the music store. Then I’d go to sleep, wake up when the music store opened, take all my stuff back in and then go to class. I did that three times a week or four times a week sometimes.”
Chesney remembered connecting with a big audience for the first time when he was touring as George Strait’s opening act. He sang his hero’s praises after Strait’s “Give It Away” won single and song of the year.
“Great songs will never go out of style,” Chesney said. “I don’t care who you are. I don’t care how old you are. People want to be spoken to. That’s one of the reasons I’m very proud to be in country music because we speak to people — their heart and their soul and the way they live their life.”
So, where does he go from here?
“One thing that I’ve missed in the past couple of years is the creative aspect of it,” Chesney said. “I’ve been so busy that I feel like my songwriting has started to … not struggled but has taken a backseat. That’s my foundation in all of this. It’s the foundation for touring and recording and selling 5 million records and selling out the New England Patriots’ football stadium in 15 minutes. That all starts with writing songs. That is what’s next for me. I’m really going to try to concentrate in the next couple of years to write some great songs.”
Underwood, who was named the ACM’s top female vocalist, won album of the year honors for Some Hearts and was also honored with the video of the year prize for “Before He Cheats.” Like Chesney, Underwood is also focusing more on songwriting.
“Growing up, I loved to sing, but I never really wrote anything because I never thought I’d be in a position to actually use it,” she said. “I never thought I’d be singing in front of thousands of people and winning awards and things like that. I never really gave it a go.”
Her follow-up album, due later this year, features several songs she co-wrote.
“I got together every single day for several weeks with the best writers,” she said. “If what we wrote together didn’t turn out to be any good, I could at least learn from them and work on that craft. I think it’s such an incredible talent. It’s something that I’m working on, and, hopefully, I’ll get better at it.”
Paisley sang “Ticks” during the ceremony, then accepted his first-ever ACM male vocalist award. He thanked fans for sticking with him through serious and lighthearted singles. Backstage, he added, “I haven’t skyrocketed out of the chute, necessarily. I’ve had some peaks and some leveled-off times. I haven’t gone away, which I’m very thankful for. It might be because it’s hard to put me in a box. It’s hard to say, ‘This is what he does.’ I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the fact that I can do tearjerkers and follow it with a parasite.”
Paisley referred to the victory as a “morale booster,” noting that he’s been overextended the last few weeks from balancing a marriage, a new son, a new tour and a new album to promote. Still, he found the time to seek out his hero on the way to the podium.
“When I did win, I first thought of George, because I am a George Strait disciple,” he explained. “I walked over and said, ‘I do this because of you.’”
Atkins, who earned the top new male vocalist award after 10 years in the business, hopes for a similarly long-lasting career.
“You look back at your heroes like Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson and Kenny Chesney,” Atkins said. “These guys didn’t just show up one night. They went out and hit it for a long time. I’m definitely an older guy, but that’s all right. I’ve been around a while.”
In her second year as a nominee, Lambert nabbed the top new female vocalist award.
“I used to watch the ACMs, and I’d have a yellow tablet and write down all the nominees and circle my winners,” she said with a giggle. “I told my parents about five years ago that I wanted to win this award one day — and here I am.”
Little Big Town’s Kimberly Roads has a child on the way, so she said she’d celebrate their award for top new vocal group or duo with a chocolate ice cream sundae. However, the rest of the band — Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook — said they might party till the wee hours.
Brooks & Dunn took awards for vocal event (“Burning Bridges” with Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill), vocal duo and humanitarian of the year. The latter award gives the artist a chance to build a playground in the community of their choice. They have chosen locations in Nashville and Brooks’ hometown of Shreveport, La.
“There’s nobody in our business who doesn’t do charity work all the time,” Kix Brooks noted. “Country radio, in particular, they do stuff for St. Jude’s, and you could go on and on. We do it for selfish reasons: It makes us feel good. We love to give back.”