LAS VEGAS -- Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles sees a shift underway within country music and the industry, and Carrie Underwood agrees with the popular contention that more women should be nominated for entertainer of the year at country awards shows.
Those were just two of the observations made backstage Sunday night (May 18) at the 43rd annual Academy of Country Music Awards. Other winners visiting the pressroom included Miranda Lambert, Brooks & Dunn, Brad Paisley, Tracy Lawrence and Rascal Flatts. Garth Brooks, recipient of the first-ever ACM Crystal Milestone Award, showed up, too, but was whisked away by ACM publicists after spending less than two minutes at the podium.
Nettles' comment about the winds of change blowing through country music came after Sugarland won single record and song of the year honors for "Stay," an emotional performance that featured starkly sparse production and a running time of almost five minutes. Additionally, Lambert's edgy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was named album of the year, and Texas-based singer-songwriter Jack Ingram became the top new male vocalist after more than a decade as a highly-respected regional artist.
"I think it's an exciting time in country music," Nettles said. "Some people will say in the music industry that it's very scary ... that there's less control or that people are trying to learn how to market now with all the new technology. But I think with those fears comes a lot of flexibility and a lot of stretching range. I think a shift is happening."
Nettles and musical partner Kristian Bush credited their record label, Mercury, with having the faith to release "Stay" as a single to country radio.
"They were nervous, but they were trusting," Nettles said. "You know, 'If you guys believe in this and want to do it, then we will back you.'"
Of the bare-bones musical arrangement, Bush said, "I just love that as a production choice -- choosing not to put things in a song."
As a newer artist with somewhat limited success on the country airplay chart, Lambert was certain Kenny Chesney would be taking home the album of the year prize at the ACMs.
"I've never had a Top 10 hit, so I just kind of ruled out album of the year," she said. "Just being nominated for it was amazing."
However, Lambert's album sales have been surprisingly high in the absence of a huge hit at radio.
"I've been really blessed to walk the fine line between of being critically acclaimed and also having commercial success -- because that's rarely done," she said. "I always reference the Dixie Chicks and Dwight Yoakam for doing that." Giving special credit to her album producers, Frank Liddell and Mike Wrunke, Lambert said, "I'm so appreciative for people to accept me for what I am. I am a little left of center, and I surround myself with people who think that way. Because of those people, they say to me that it's OK to be who I am."
As a multi-platinum artist who's now headlining concerts at major arenas, Underwood is now well-aware of how much work is involved for female singers. In particular, she says other female artists are long overdue in getting nominated for the entertainer of the year award from various organizations.
"I think there have been several women over the past decade that should have been nominated at some point," she said. "It's disappointing that they haven't been, because I know -- and I'm speaking for all of us -- how hard women have to work. Not to take anything away from the guys, but we have to do a lot more than they have to do. ... It's unfortunate that a lot more women haven't gotten a lot more credit."
She commended Lambert on her album of the year win.
"Miranda is a wonderful artist," Underwood said. "It goes back to the women thing. It seems like there's only a certain number of [award] slots, and it's like everybody is vying for two or three slots. It's kind of weird. None of us are competitive with each other anyway. We get together and we hang out. Miranda is one of those people who deserves a lot more credit than she's gotten. Her album is great."
Brooks & Dunn expected Sugarland to break their run as top vocal duo. Noting that he was sitting in the audience with partner Kix Brooks when the winner was announced, Ronnie Dunn said, "He looked at me. I was looking away, and he said, 'What'd they say?'"
Brooks added, "Some other duo had already won a couple of awards. You know how it is out here. When it gets swinging in somebody's direction, it's kind of their night."
Paisley was named top male vocalist, but he seemed happiest about the audience reaction to Jason Alexander's appearance on the awards show. Alexander, best known for his role as George Costanza on Seinfeld, directed and is featured in Paisley's video for "Online," which was named video of the year.
"I was standing backstage, ready to play, and when he walked out, the ovation was really, really huge," Paisley said. "It was wonderful to see that kind of treatment for him. I told him after we won, 'Who needs an Emmy?'"
Paisley says he's always relieved when he wins an award.
"Your nerves are on the edge during a show like this for many reasons," he explained. "We had a couple of performances, and those are all opportunities to make a complete and total fool of yourself. And then I had four chances to lose. It's fun to win, and that kind of relief makes you go, 'All right. Let's just go to the party now and have a good time and go on with the career.'"
Lawrence shared vocal event of the year honors for "Find Out Who Your Friends Are," his collaboration with Chesney and Tim McGraw. He says he now has a more mature view of what the awards mean.
"Every time you win an award, I think it's very validating because there are so many people behind it," he said. "It's fans, it's all the guys in radio, all the people in our industry. I guess at this stage in my career, being able to take another run for it, I think I appreciate it a lot more."
Rascal Flatts picked up another win as top vocal group, along with The ACM/The Home Depot Humanitarian Award for their work with the Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville, the American Red Cross and other charities.
"It's kind of weird that you can win an award for being kind, but we accept it, and we're humbled and honored by it, really," lead vocalist Gary LeVox said. "It's not only the kids, it's the faculty and everybody at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. We've been fortunate enough to change some lives over there, but they have changed our lives for the better. It's a magical place."
Guitarist Joe Don Rooney said his appreciation of the Red Cross grew even more recently after a tornado ravaged his hometown of Picher, Okla.
"Within two hours, they were there -- the Tulsa chapter," Rooney said. "They had shelters set up. They had food. They had counseling set up for those people affected. I've never seen a hands-on [effort] like that, so it gave me a whole new outlook. I just love the Red Cross and what they do."
Check out the complete coverage of the 2008 ACM Awards show.