Image Credit: Francis Specker/CBS/LandovIt was another glamorous day at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Mixers, where country music’s best and brightest gathered to rehearse for their performances on Sunday night’s Academy of Country Music Awards. (Recently added to the lineup as presenters: David Nail, Jake Owen, Joe Nichols, and Randy Houser!) As usual, your Aunt Whittlz was on the scene, diligently type-type-typing away except for when I was distracted by horribly mundane activities such as eating.
Read on for the almost unnecessarily minute-by-minute scoop on rehearsals from Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, and Carrie Underwood, plus interviews with Miranda Lambert and Reba McEntire. Plus: Robin Leach!
12:17 p.m. Keith Urban’s adorable Aussie accent is filling the arena as I arrive. His band is on stage, noodling around with the lick from Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side” while Keith stands in the house, discussing a top-secret gimmick. I’ve been asked not to reveal the gimmick, which is fine by me. I like to be part of the solution. Thus, I can give you a snippet of Keith’s conversation, and nothing more: “There might be something cool in taking it and walking right up on stage with it,” he says. “Then I just have to figure out who’s gonna take it when I walk up to my mic.” As he brainstorms with staffers, Keith is wonderfully cheerful and good-natured.
12:18 p.m. He’s singing “I’m In.” This song is also very cheerful and good-natured. Keith, I do need a lover and a friend. Thank you for suggesting that.
12:25 p.m. My heroes the Adult Swaybots are back in the pit and I love them just as much as ever. They are the unsung heroes of this rehearsal process. And they have really upped their game today — one of them is almost catching air as she bounces and claps.
12:28 p.m. They run through the number again. The cameramen are shooting with hand-helds, giving the whole number a grainy, DIY feel on the jumbotron. Thinking about getting up there with my cell phone to help. Except my cell phone doesn’t shoot video. Failure!
12:35 p.m. Miranda Lambert’s bass player is in the house, zig-zagging through the seats with his mohawk, talking on a cell phone.
12:48 p.m. Keith finishes another take, and the sizeable crowd of civilians packed into the seats on the other side of the house cheer. “We love you, Keith!” one of them screams. “Hi!” says Keith.
12: 50 p.m. Adult Swaybot Nation just posed for a group photo. Check the Getty website later, maybe you can see it. I want an 8×10.
12:58 p.m. We are moving on.
12:59 p.m. Oops, just kidding: Now they’re playing back Keith’s performance so he can watch it. He seems pleased. Well, I mean, I can only see the back of his head. But he’s not, like, throwing chairs or anything.
1:10 p.m. Lady Antebellum is in the house, as the opening chords of “American Honey” ring through the air. Then Charles, Hillary, and Dave walk down to the house and Charles nuzzles up to the cardboard cutout that marks where he’ll be sitting in the audience Sunday night. They have seven nominations. Their seats are smack in the center of the front row.
1:17 p.m. Charles and Hillary are now on stage, practicing their harmonies.
1:24 p.m. Dave is rocking a gorgeous intro to the song on a black acoustic, an improvised melody complete with harmonic touches at the end. As they move through the song, home videos stream behind them on gold-framed screens: It’s the Lady As back when they really were puppies, an adorable trio of kids on playgrounds, kids swimming, kids golfing, kids riding bikes and washing cars. There’s footage of Dave and Charles in their old high school bands, and a gorgeous shot of Hillary painting at a tiny easel next to her mom. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any cuter.
1:30 p.m. “Hey Dave?” says Charles to his guitar master, who is trying to figure out where to perform his lovely intro. “Why don’t you go out to the edge a little bit more?” Either Charles wants Dave to get crushed by the wall that comes down from the sky between performances, or he wants to get him more (much-deserved) attention. “Don’t Bret Michaels him!” gasps one of my fellow journalists.
1:35 p.m. Dave is uncrushed and out in the spotlight, rockin’ his acoustic intro again. It’s a little Goo Goo Dolls-sounding this time.
1:47 p.m. Another run of “American Honey,” and Hillary is now wearing a floor-length gown with a red and grey floral pattern. She likes to test dresses ahead of time. I know this because I am America’s foremost blogger of awards show rehearsal situations. You people don’t know how lucky you are, I swear.
2:27 p.m. Brooks & Dunn tribute rehearsal with Lady A. I’m not allowed to tell you about it. I have however been given clearance to mention the truly impressive job B&D’s manager did as one of the on-stage stand-ins. That man has learned a thing or two about holding a microphone, lemme tell you. Really impressive.
2:40 p.m. We’re moving on to Miranda Lambert, but she’s starting with her Brooks & Dunn number, so I will continue to be silent. On an unrelated note, Robin “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” Leach just arrived at the arena and asked me if there’s wireless in here. That voice! Speaking directly to me! Oh, my day is made. You know, you grow up as a little girl in Texas and you dream of things. This wasn’t necessarily one of them, but it could have been.
3ish p.m. I interview Lady Antebellum about their experience taping American Idol this week, and learn two things: 1) that Dave is/was a Katie Stevens fan and 2) that Hillary tried out for the show twice, and didn’t get past the first round.
3:32 p.m. Finally transitioning into Miranda’s rehearsal of “House that Built Me.” Her guitarist sings the first pass in a high, keening voice that doesn’t sound half bad.
3:36 p.m. Miranda takes her first shot at it. She’s center stage, with the band behind her and off to her right in the corner. It’s very stark. There’s a mirror ball reflected over the audience like stars, and it’s dead silent in here. When she finishes the run, a stage manager yells, “That was awesome.”
3:45 p.m. Miranda comes down off stage and sits on her boyfriend Blake Shelton’s lap. He’s hiding in the audience stage right, drinking something out of a red gimme cup. Keith Urban, where are you?!? I continue to need a lover and a friend, dammit!
4:00ish p.m. Ladies and gentlemen, Miranda Lambert, who is deathly ill with a sinus infection, not that I could tell while she was singing:
EW: So you recently had to break up a catfight at your show?
Miranda: These two girls were right up front being really loud, and I was just like, “Okay, if you want your moment, let’s call you out, and you can have your moment. And don’t make me come down there, cause I really don’t want to. I will have to beat both of your asses.” Yeah, I don’t know what they were fighting about, but it just got distracting. The whole place started watching them.
EW: Why is “House That Built Me” getting so much play on the radio? It’s so different from almost everything else out there.
Miranda: I think it’s great. The only other song that I can actually remember that was so stripped down was Sugarland’s “Stay,” and I think that kind of opened the door for a song like this to get to be a single. There’s no drums, you know? My drummer’s sittin’ out here in the audience, poor thing.
EW: Is 6 nominations the most you’ve ever had?
Miranda: Yeah. By like, five. [laughs] I’ve had two before, but six is a really big deal.
EW: Does it give you confidence?
Miranda: It does, but I feel nervous, too. I guess it’s more anticipation than nerves, but yeah, it’s so validating for your peers in the industry to think you deserve six nominations. I think it’s more pressure, but it’s good pressure. It pushes you to be better. And nominations are great, but I’d be doing this anyway.
EW: Tell me a little about the song you’re singing with Jamey Johnson on Dierks Bentley’s new record. It’s called “Bad Angel”?
Miranda: It’s fun! I love the fact that Dierks is doing something really different with his music. I loved the song when they sent me the worktape, and they let me do the drinking verse, which was at my request. [laughs] It’s just a fun vibe. I’m glad he asked me to be on it.
EW: It feels like your latest album, his upcoming album — these are albums from people who are making the kind of music they want to make, not trying to gauge the market.
Miranda: But I think it’ll sell! I think if people would just do it, and be who they are, they’ll realize they’ll be accepted. I just think if you sell who you are, people will believe you. If you’re fake, you won’t be there in the long run.
5:06 p.m. Went out to grab a sandwich during more Brooks & Dunn action and came back to find the sparkly stand-ins pretending to be Miranda and Carrie Underwood, rockin’ out wordlessly as a band plays behind them. The sparkly ladies are soon joined by more stand-ins, playing invsible instruments. It’s like theater for crazy people.
5:10 p.m. Now the crew is taking a dinner break, so we have an hour to kill. Will use this time to transcribe the Miranda interview printed above. Whoa. Wormhole! Did I just blow your mind?
6:20 p.m. Robin Leach is getting his picture taken with Reba. I think it’s kinda cute that he still cares that much.
6:24 p.m. I get a couple minutes with Reba McEntire before she’s whisked away for rehearsal. I ask her what she’s doing to make the show new and fresh for her this year, and she says, “I’m lettin’ all the writers do that. I’m gonna be the messenger. They’re writin’ all the great jokes and the funny things to say, and I’m gonna be the messenger. So don’t kill the messenger if they offend anybody.” She says this in her perfect Reba voice. I love Reba. Reba is like the sunrise: she is constant, and forever bright. I ask if she’s ever tanked a joke, and what the writers do when she does, and then it occurs to me that Reba has probably never tanked a joke in her life. She concurs. I ask her about the way she makes everyone feel like they know her, and if it ever gets frustrating when strangers on the street treat you like you’re their best friend. “No!” she says, of course. “I’ve done it myself. Remember the mailman on Cheers? Cliff? He was at the ACMs when it was in L.A., and I was backstage doing press, and I saw him and I said, ‘How in the heck are ya?!’ and I just went and hugged his neck. And he said, ‘Have we ever met?’ I said, ‘I’m so sorry. I just feel like I’ve known ya all my life.’ So I understand totally how they feel.”
6:28 p.m. Just learned that the Miranda/Carrie number I saw the stand-ins rehearsing before dinner is a cover of a John Fogerty song. And you might recall that Miranda Lambert at one point had a Fogerty cover in her set list. And you might be able to divine from that information what song she and Carrie are doing. And you might recall a little something about John Fogerty being a part of the show this year. And now your interest might be piqued.
6:47 p.m. Sugarland was apparently just in the building rehearsing their Brooks & Dunn performance, but they didn’t do it on the mainstage. So even if I was allowed to tell you what they’re singing on the show, which I am not, I couldn’t, because I didn’t see it. It’s odd they didn’t rehearse in here, though.
6:52 p.m. After running through a few of her teleprompter bits in various spots around the room, Reba is now rehearsing “Keep On Loving You.” It is predictably impeccable. Behind her as she sings is what looks to be a slideshow of male country stars and their wives, lovely soft-focus shots of Johnny and June, Tim and Faith, Keith and Nicole, etc, etc. Naturally, it ends on Reba and Narvel. Aw.
7:39 p.m. The stage of the MGM Grand Garden Arena has been transformed into a white princess lounge, complete with flowing floor-to-ceiling translucent curtains, glowing pink and green and purple in the light. We’ve got female musicians ready with piano, cello, violin, and a big ol’ Spanish guitar; they’re seated in a semi-circle around a pastel rag carpet. It looks like a scene from a Sofia Coppola movie, but this gossamer loveliness is courtesy of one Ms. Carrie Underwood. PS if you are a Carrie Underwood fan and you are not spending every waking instant on the CBS website voting for her in the Entertainer of the Year category, you are not doing your part and Taylor is going to beat you and I don’t want to hear complaining if/when she does. PPS if you are a George Strait fan and have taken the time to obsessively vote for him via the interwebs, please leave your contact info in the comments.
7:53 p.m. Carrie starts her first run of “Temporary Home.” She’s wearing a plaid shirt, jeans, boots, and standing planted strong in the center of the stage, belting it out. The outfit doesn’t match the song, but her voice sure does. I have never once seen Carrie Underwood pull back vocally just because she’s in rehearsal. Rehearsal is for chumps. Do, or do not — there is no try for Carrie Underwood.
8:03 p.m. Carrie is laying into “Temporary Home” with such force that the microphone actually shorts out briefly. I’m taking that as a sign that my night here is done. Carrie won’t be doing interviews, nor will Rascal Flatts, who are the last act scheduled for today. Meanwhile, there’s a party on Fremont Street and I want to go see Lady Antebellum rock their neon socks off.
Check back here tomorrow for Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker, and Tim McGraw n’ Faith Hill. (The last two will be in person, not slide-show format.) Tomorrow is also somewhat historical already: Brooks & Dunn will make their final appearance on the ACM practice-time stage. And if you like what you’re reading here — hi Mom! — don’t forget to sign up for Sunday night’s ACM live-blog, which will be almost exactly like this, except actually live. Excitement!
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