LAS VEGAS -- Just moments after accepting his fourth consecutive entertainer of the year award from the Academy of Country Music, Kenny Chesney criticized recent changes that now make it a fan-voted category. His comments Sunday night (May 18) were in response to a reporter's question in the backstage pressroom at the 43rd annual ACM Awards show here at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino.
Chesney repeatedly emphasized that his criticism is not aimed at country music fans or other artists. "It is an industry complaint that I have," he explained. "That's all. I'm so excited to stand up here tonight, and that's important for everybody to know."
Historically, all of the ACM's artist awards have been determined by music industry professionals who are members of the Academy. For the first time this year, however, the ACM allowed fans to vote online to choose the entertainer of the year.
When initially asked about the organization's decision to change it into a fan-voted category, Chesney paused and said, "I've got to choose my words wisely here. I think it's important to know that I do think the fans should be a part of this awards show. I really do. But I'm probably one of the guys in the audience that didn't think it should be for entertainer of the year.
"The entertainer of the year trophy is supposed to represent heart and passion and an amazing amount of sacrifice, commitment and focus. That's the way Garth [Brooks] won it four times. That's the way I won it. That's the way [George] Strait won it ... and Reba [McEntire] and Alabama all those years."
Noting that both the ACM and fans "have been great to me and continue to be," Chesney added, "But I don't think it's right that they picked the one award that means the most, that all the artists sacrifice the most for." He said they changed the category "into a sweepstakes to see who can push people's buttons the hardest on the Internet. I don't think that's right, really.
"I think it's a complete disrespect of the artist -- what they've lowered us to, to get entertainer of the year. ... Because of that, it really diminishes the integrity of the music that we're making and how much work goes into it. That's what really matters. That's what entertainer of the year really is. It's not about flying somebody to some shows and giving free songs away -- and giving this and that -- and seeing how hard you can push people's buttons on the Internet. As much as I love the ACMs and what they've done for my life, that's how I really feel about it.. And I can say that because I won tonight."
In being named entertainer of the year four times in a row, he ties Brooks' ACM record of four consecutive wins by a solo artist. Alabama won the award five straight years.
"I'm honored to be up here for four years in a row to tie Garth's record, believe me," Chesney said. "I may not ever win it again, but I know I've achieved this. I just think we all need to be careful how we give this award away in the future. ... If somebody stands up here in the future, they should do it because they sacrificed a tremendous amount."
To promote participation among its fan base, Rascal Flatts last week offered a free MP3 download -- a previously unreleased live version of "Winner at a Losing Game" -- to those voting for the band in the entertainer category. Although Rascal Flatts did not violate any of the ACM's guidelines, the offer was removed from the group's Web site after just one day. According to The Tennessean newspaper, the ACM identified those online votes and did not count them in the final tally.
Asked about his attitude about the MP3 campaign, Chesney said, "My first reaction to it wasn't anything towards the act that put out the MP3 offer because I love them boys. And they deserve to be up here at some point. No doubt about it. It's just an example of how they [the industry] have made us conduct ourselves to stand up here. I could talk about it all night, but it should be about the music, and it should be about the integrity of it and how much work goes into making it. That's all I thought about. ... It wasn't anything directed towards anybody. It was just the whole thing. I don't think I'm wrong."
He said fans should be allowed to vote in other categories.
"I think the fans should be a part of it," he said. "It could be video of the year or duo of the year -- or both. I think the fans should be a part of it, but not the one award that every artist sacrifices the most to achieve."
Chesney stressed that he's extremely appreciative of the fan support that provided him with his latest award.
"It's not tainted in any amount, and I'm proud of it," he said. "And I'm proud to say that I'll go down in the history books with Garth -- that I've won it four times. And don't get me wrong. I'm excited the fans have voted me entertainer of the year. It means the world. When I go out on the road next week, I want to thank them over and over. And tonight on the Internet, I'm going to thank them over and over again. But you have to admit, if they [the ACM] continue to do this, it's a different award."
Because he won the award, Chesney said he felt it was OK to raise the question of the fan voting in the category.
"I do feel like I have a little freedom of speech -- that I won it, for sure," he said. "If I'd have lost tonight to George or Rascal Flatts or whatever, I wouldn't be standing up here."
The three members of Rascal Flatts were apparently unaware of Chesney's remarks when they visited the pressroom a few minutes later, but lead vocalist Gary LeVox said the group is all in favor of the fans deciding the entertainer of the year award.
"It's about time," he said. "They're the reason that the three of us -- all of us -- have jobs. ... It's a shame that they don't have a voice. This year was the first year that they did. It's incredible, and hopefully it continues."
Brad Paisley, who was also nominated for entertainer of the year, said he sees both sides of the argument although he's not all that concerned how the winner is determined.
"I was really excited for the fans when they announced that," Paisley said. "At the same time, I realized that people have different levels of organization in their fan clubs and the ability to win an award. But I don't care. To me, it's really fun to see them able to participate in this.
"My only fear was always that it would be fair. They have enough trouble with the presidential elections, spending how many billions of dollars trying to make them fair and accurate. But it's fine. Again, this isn't president of the United States. This is entertainer of the year. I'm just happy with the fans. If they do it again next year, we'll see if I'm nominated or not."