The Academy of Country Music Awards show airs Wednesday (May 26) at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
When Reba McEntire hosts the 39th annual Academy of Country Music Awards on Wednesday (May 26), it will be her seventh time in the driver's seat. But her first visit to the awards show -- as a new female vocalist nominee back in 1981 -- wasn't as sweet.
"Terri Gibbs won," McEntire recalls with a chuckle. "She had a song out called 'Somebody's Knockin'."
No need for tears over her loss. The redheaded wonder has gone on to take home 11 ACM trophies over the years, including the entertainer of the year award for 1994. She has also won the female vocalist award a record seven times. (Loretta Lynn is next in line with four wins.)
As host of the live three-hour CBS broadcast from the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, McEntire says it's that first monologue of the evening that's a killer. And, of course, performing in front her friends who will be in the audience.
"If you can get through that first sentence and take a breath, you're OK," she tells CMT News. "Then your legs will stop feeling like jelly. When you see all your buddies and friends, the people you've been in competition with for 25 years, oh, they make you nervous! It's not the millions of people watching all over the world. It's those people in the first four rows that make me a nervous wreck."
For the millions watching at home, McEntire will be one of the 22 acts performing on the show. In addition to Kenny Chesney's collaboration with Uncle Kracker, Tim McGraw will debut his new single, "Live Like You Were Dying," and Loretta Lynn will be joined by Vince Gill to perform her new one, "Miss Being Mrs." Other performers include superstars Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and Martina McBride, hot newcomers Gretchen Wilson and Josh Turner and the elusive George Strait.
"I love to be on live TV," McEntire says of her performance slot. "To be in front of a live audience and know it's going out to the world is such a rush."
McEntire is also getting a rush these days from being back on the concert stage. After a three-year break from touring, she hit the road in April for a summer run of fairs and festivals. She had taken time off from music to concentrate on her smash turn on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun and her hit TV show, Reba.
"It gave me another avenue to still be in front of my fans doing something other than singing, which I still absolutely love with all my heart," McEntire explains. "It just really gave me a chance to step back and say, 'I need a break.'"
So what does a country superstar do on a break?
"I got to piddle," she said. "I got to go have lunches with my girlfriends. I got to spend more time with my family and just piddle around doing absolutely nothing. And I thoroughly enjoyed it."
Now that she's back on the road, McEntire has jumped headlong into the songs she built her career on. Her show is a sort of live "greatest hits" package, spanning fan favorites like "Fancy," "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" and "Is There Life Out There." Except this time, she's singing them without the vocal gymnastics that made her famous.
"I feel I'm singing better now because I'm not trying to find a lick, a curly cue, a device," she says. "I'm just singing. And being away from the business for the last few years has really made me realize that all you've got to do is sing the songs. The song will perform itself. You don't have to dress it up or tear it down. You just sing it. It will fly on its own."