Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty ImagesWelcome back to the final day of rehearsals for the Academy of Country Music Awards! The one and only Randy Travis has been added as a presenter, and we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s not dally! In today’s post: Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Brooks & Dunn, a press conference with Sugarland, and a quick chat with Darius Rucker. Onward!
9:40 a.m. Bright and early (for Vegas) Saturday morning here in the MGM Green Giant Arena, and they’re doing a “look-see” with the women who will be handing out the ACM statuettes on Sunday night. The two ladies stand on the stage in their evening gowns, and we look at them, and we see.
9:45 a.m. He’s been off the road all year and he “Ain’t Back Yet”: Kenny Chesney is on the scene to rehearse the single from his 3D movie — which I get to see tonight, so check back here for details on the star-studded premiere tomorrow (UPDATE: Click here to see Whitney Pastorek’s Kenny Chesney in 3-D premiere On the Scene report) — and the uptempo, horn-driven number is almost better than the cup of coffee I’ve not yet had time to go and get. (I am dying inside.) As the riffy song rolls along, Kenny takes a wide stance at the microphone and really gets into it. His voice sounds great. I wonder if he misses performing yet. You know, in between siestas on his yacht in the islands. “That song, ‘Ain’t Back Yet,’ which is from the movie [it plays over the closing credits], I think it really reflects our live show a lot,” Chesney told me. “Been looking for one of those for a couple years, just to add to it.”
10:03 a.m. And we’re already moving on. Damn, Chesney’s not messing around.
10:37 a.m. After I stand in an endless Starbucks line to get the triple grande soy latte that is going to keep me from stabbing someone this morning, I return to find Darius Rucker on stage playing “Forever Road.” With its pendulous bass line, it’s one of the most identifiably “country” songs I’ve heard on the rehearsal stage this week. This happened at the CMAs, too: Darius was the first to break out the banjo. Never thought the guy transitioning from a pop career would be among the genre’s most (relatively) consistent standard bearers, but I respect him for it.
10:47 a.m. Am fairly certain Darius and his band are playing live and not to track. Impressive.
10:50 a.m. Darius will also be using the ACM’s sneezy pyro, in 5… 4… 3…. achoo! Then they test a second effect — in which I think his drummer just exploded!!! My god!!!
10:51 a.m. Oh wait, no, just a big flashpot behind the drummer. Okay.
10:56 a.m. A full run of “Forever Road” with pyro has begun. It starts as a normal-looking band of men on stage (including one person miming what looks like a mandolin), playing a pleasant and straightforward song. And then sparks fly! Why? WHY? Why are there sparks? They went off right around the “I never meant to make you cry” line. Maybe if you stopped shooting off pyro, we wouldn’t cry! Somebody hold me!
10:59 a.m. The miming instrument man steps out to take an invisible solo. When I talk to Darius later (wormhole!) he will tell me the man was indeed miming a mandolin. I declare myself the winner of Rehearsal Charades.
11:00 a.m. The booming flashpot behind the drummer goes off at the very end of the song. Again, I do not know why we are blowing up the Forever Road. Is this a comment on the existential inevitability of destruction despite our prayers for eternal life? Is it a valuable reminder that nothing in this life is certain, that we must live each moment to the fullest before it disappears in a flash of loud light? Does Darius just hate his drummer? I’m going to go find him and ask.
11:20 a.m. I find Darius, and ask him to explain the thematic context for the pyro in his performance. He laughs. “I’m gonna have to study on that,” he says. “That was the first time I saw the pyro, so I’m going to go look at it, and I’m going to write a thesis on it, and fax it to you.” I suggest he present me his thesis on the red carpet tomorrow. He agrees. (Cliffhanger!) I also mention that for the last several country awards shows, his songs have been some of the more traditionally country-leaning tunes. He nods. “When I started this, one of the things I said was, whether you liked my record or not, I wanted you to have to say it was country,” he says. “I mean, that’s a straight bluegrass song we played today. I love that stuff.”
11:22 a.m. The practice ACM Fake Entertainer of the Year is, ***for this rehearsal only***, Taylor Swift. A blond stand-in gets up from the audience to pretend to accept her fake award. “Oh my goodness. I just feel so fortunate and blessed to be here,” she gasps. She then encourages everyone in the audience to buy a ticket to see the EOY noms in concert. She also thanks George Strait for starting her career, and the fans for voting. She loves you, fans.
11:51 a.m. Tim McGraw has entered the building, like a dark western Elvis. He walks straight up to the stage and tests the mic. “Welcome to the Grand Ol Opry,” he says, to applause from the sizeable audience of special guests in the arena. Then McGraw announces that his guitarist will do his “ritual striptease” during this song, “and then the trap door will open before it gets too embarrassing for him.” The guitarist is, in fact, standing precariously close to one of the hydraulic traps that expels the Laura Bell Bundy dancers.
11:53 a.m. Tim is asking if the lyrics for “Still” will be up on the teleprompter. “I get confused in my old age,” he explains. Someone reminds him he’s only 42. “That’s like 72 in road years,” Tim jokes. “My god.”
11:55 a.m. This is not necessarily the most professional thing I’ve ever said, but I’d like to point out that Tim McGraw is an insanely attractive man. Especially for someone who’s 72.
11:58 a.m. McGraw finishes “Still” with a giant air guitar windmill. “Is that it?” he asks. “We know a bunch more songs.” The crowd cheers. I am reminded of last year’s rehearsals, when Tim got pissed about something and took off and Faith Hill spent the next 30 minutes or so killing time on stage by entertaining the audience with a Q&A session and some George Strait covers, and offered to buy us all pizza.
12:02 p.m. They reset to go again. Someone says, “Sorry for the delay” over the PA. Delay? It’s been four minutes! This is not a delay. I’ve been here for three days. I’ve seen delays. Today’s trains are running almost alarmingly on time. Like, too good to be true kinds of on time. Maybe they’re trying to out-run the massive cloud of volcanic ash that’s on its way here from Iceland. Or maybe today’s acts just don’t have a lot of hoo-hah.
12:06 p.m. Tim ends the second run-through by spreading his arms wide to his band, then doing a sort of Tiger Woods-esque arm pump.
12:07 p.m. Faith Hill is in the audience hugging everyone. She is so pretty. So shiny and gorgeous and pretty. I feel like a shriveled, mottled lump of cheese that’s been left in the sun too long when I look at Faith Hill. I’m not sure my current line of work is particularly conducive to good self-esteem.
12:13 p.m. Tim came down to the floor to give an interview to an EPK crew and is now being swarmed by fans with digital cameras who want their picture taken with him like a character at Disney World. Discussion topic in arena: Being famous must be an enormous pain in the ass sometimes. To his credit, Tim is being insanely gracious and patient with everyone.
12:16 p.m. Faith and Tim just walked out of the arena holding hands. Self-esteem issues suddenly compounded by deep painful loneliness and feelings of isolation. Am doomed to die a spinster whose eyeballs get eaten by rats because I am a shriveled, mottled lump of cheese.
12:18 p.m. Sorry. Did it just get really dark in here?
12:20 p.m. Was just reassured I’m not really in trouble until I join Cheesecake of the Month Club. Whew.
12:25 p.m. Faith is on stage, testing her mic by singing like an angel. The wall behind her says “Brooks & Dunn,” so I will now pretend like I’m not here for a while.
12:44 p.m. Faith can’t see the teleprompter. She starts laughing and says she needs glasses. They offer to make the words on the teleprompter bigger. “No no no!” she exclaims. “Not bigger. [pause] That’s embarrassing.” Naturally, this gets turned into some sort of innuendo, Faith turns bright red, and dissolves into giggles. Then a stagehand brings her a pair of exaggerated coke-bottle specs.
12:53 p.m. Tim McGraw is now back on stage for his Brooks & Dunn tribute number, which I cannot tell you about, except that I really love the song he’s doing and I’m happy he’s singing it but Jason Aldean is still winning this weekend’s Ronnie Dunn Impersonation-Off. (There are as of yet no entrants in the Kix Brooks Impersonation-Off.) “Long time no see,” Tim says to the crowd. Then he puts on that same pair of exaggerated coke-bottle specs and squints at the teleprompter. “It’s too big!” he says.
1 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Long break. The efficiency of the morning acts has caused a massive lull. I play blackjack and break even.
2:30 p.m. Sugarland is giving a press conference, sponsored by Dr. Pepper, in the MGM Grand Marquee Ballroom, which is a giant building located adjacent to the hotel’s conference center. It is about 100 yards from the Green Giant Arena, but it takes 20 minutes to walk there. Robin Leach is in attendance. [UPDATE: Life just gets better! Met Robin Leach at the Chesney movie premiere and found out he’s reading these blogs. Can now die of hilarious happiness. Seriously, if I’d known this is where my life was gonna end up, I’d have worn different shoes.]
2:30 – 3 p.m. According to Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush (who are seated at a table sipping Dr. Pepper in a loud and openly solicitous manner into their microphones), their new album The Incredible Machine will be released sometime in October. First single is due in maybe July. They recorded it during the month of February, and the idea is, as Jennifer puts it, to “keep it real” and tour in order to promote the record before release.
The tour itself is bigger than anything they’ve taken out before, and was designed by the same dude who’s worked with Billy Joel and Justin Timberlake. He also designed the Star Wars concert tour I saw a billboard for on my way to Vegas. They’ve based their tour aesthetic on the concept of steampunk, basically a fantasy version of the world imagining life had we not evolved beyond Victorian technology.
Kristian says the new music “reaches” a little bit further than usual, and was inspired “forwards and backwards” by the tour, since both were conceived at the same time. He says there are moments in the live show where “it is the album, emotionally, visually, and aesthetically.” Most of the new music was written by Jennifer and Kristian themselves, though there might be a big collaboration upon which they were unwilling to elaborate.
They’re not performing on the ACM telecast, but it’s a “conscious choice”; Jennifer says they’re between album cycles and a little bit “cold” on the old material, so they decided to just come and support their friends instead. When asked about Brooks & Dunn’s legacy and Monday’s tribute taping — on which they will be performing — Kristian says Ronnie and Kix are “two people who absolutely should be honored.” And because Sugarland said it out loud at a press conference, I don’t mind telling you that they’ll be performing “Red Dirt Road” on the show. They chose that song because it was written by just Kix and Ronnie, and because it reminds them of their first full tour spent opening for B&D. “Being able to hear that song every night, it holds something special,” says Jennifer.
Also, Sugarland think Kenny Chesney kind of missed an opportunity by not shooting their hamster balls for his 3D movie. This is a valid point.
3:34 p.m. Back in the arena for Brooks & Dunn’s rehearsal, though they’re still prepping tribute show material. Kix Brooks is now the official winner of the Kix Brooks Impersonation-Off.
3:48 p.m. Ronnie and Kix practice accepting their lifetime achievement awards, and Kix gets off the line of the week w/r/t their retirement: “We’re talking to Brett Favre to see how you’re supposed to waffle on this kind of stuff.”
4:08 p.m. Well, this is it, kids: The final rehearsal for the final ACM performance that Brooks & Dunn will ever do. EVER. It begins with their band pretty credibly noodling around with Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.”
4:16 p.m. The fake intro lady comes out to practice the teleprompter copy, which includes two questions that I do not think were supposed to be rhetorical — “Do you remember your first ACM song?” and “Is this really goodbye?” — but Ronnie and Kix decline to answer either of them. (Kix just shakes his head no on both.) As you no doubt already know at home, they’ve got three song options for the broadcast: “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “My Maria,” and “Red Dirt Road.” What they end up singing is up to you, so votevotevotevote for your favorite. (If you are not voting for “My Maria,” you are dead to me.) They start off rehearsal with “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” Sing it, Kix!
4:25 p.m. Next up: “My Maria.” For the first time all week, I stop typing and just clap and sing along. I haven’t really eaten anything all day, but I’m sure that’s not the only reason why I got a little emotional — I’ve got a long history of weeping when I hear songs I love at Brooks & Dunn shows, as this blog post from a long-ago Stagecoach will attest. About halfway through the song, the youngsters of Gloriana walk in. They stand beneath me on the floor of the arena and put on their all-access wristbands. They show no overt excitement about the fact that B&D are playing THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL TIME EVER FOR THE LAST TIME EVER OMG but I can’t expect everyone to be a spaz like me.
When “My Maria” finishes, the crowd gives B&D a partial standing ovation, the first one I’ve seen during these rehearsals. Deserved.
4:32 p.m. Your third option: “Red Dirt Road.” This song will forever remind me of the day B&D announced they were calling it quits and the radio station in LA played nothing but B&D music all afternoon. Adult Swaybot Nation is in the pit again, swaying like their lives depend on it, like Tinkerbell is going to die if they stop. Ronnie gives an extra growl to the last chorus, I like to think because of Adult Swaybot Nation’s extraordinary enthusiasm. They make me want to be a better person.
4:36 p.m. We are moving on. “Ladies and gentlemen, Brooks & Dunn!” says a man in a very aggressive cowboy shirt to the pack of special guest fans seated on the other side of the arena. They cheer. I want to cheer, but I’m too far away, so I just cheer on the inside.
4:49 p.m. Besides the fact that Gloriana are rehearsing a snippet of “Wild At Heart” on the cake-topper stage in the back of the room and I am doomed to have that infernal song stuck in my head for the rest of the night now, that’s really it from here, folks. Brad Paisley’s rehearsal is closed to media because he is doing some sort of big ol’ secret fancy thing involving “Water”; I have no idea what it is but in my heart I am hoping that he dresses up like Pink at the Grammys — in the unitard with the strategically-placed ribbons – and twirls above the audience after dunking himself in a tank. (I’m sure to be disappointed, but it won’t be the first time.) I’ve gotta head across town to see the big Chesney 3-D spectacular anyway, so I’m just posting this and moving on.
Hope you’ve enjoyed these not-quite-live blogs from rehearsal; I know I’ve enjoyed risking my relationships with Dick Clark Productions, the CBS television network, and every publicist in Nashville by writing them. (THANK YOU EVERYONE FOR EVERYTHING.) And I hope you’re now 100 percent totally psyched for Sunday’s show! You can stream a live webcast of the red carpet at www.acmcountry.com, and I’ll be back here during the telecast to do a real live live-blog that you can sign up for right now. Won’t you join me?
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