Talk-show host Craig Ferguson got off the best wisecrack of the night during Tuesday's Academy of Country Music Awards, where the kilt-clad comic was an incongruous presenter. Talking backstage about the genre's likable literalism, Ferguson said, ''There's not a lot of allegory in country songs. If a guy says, 'I am the walrus,' he really is a walrus.''
That matter-of-fact quality he's talking about can translate to some blunt talk off the record, as well. And much of the backstage and post-event party buzz had to do with some barbs exchanged in recent days between ACMs host Reba McEntire and the Dixie Chicks. The latter group wasn't anywhere within a 500-mile radius of the Las Vegas kudocast, of course, being caught up in a mutual estrangement from the country industry. But Chicks fiddler Martie Maguire was quoted in this week's Time cover story as saying: ''I'd rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don't want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do.'' It's one thing to take on contentious Toby, but to go after country royalty (and big TV star) Reba and her fans? McEntire got a dig back during the show, alluding to the fact that she'd taken the year off from hosting last year in saying, ''I don't know why I was so nervous about hosting this show this year. If the Dixie Chicks can sing with their feet in their mouths, surely I can host this sucker.'' The applause among the fan-dominated audience at the MGM Grand Garden arena was sustained and massive.
A more benign rivalry provided a modicum of suspense, as awards watchers wondered whether Kenny Chesney or Keith Urban would win the top prize, Entertainer of the Year. Chesney got it from the ACMs last year, but it looked like a bad sign that he wasn't nominated for Single or Album of the Year. And Urban had taken the same category in an upset at last November's CMA Awards in New York. But Chesney prevailed after all. ''When you look at the number of people Kenny plays to on a nightly basis,'' Urban said after the show, ''that's what you're looking at for the Entertainer of the Year, and that's who it would go to.''
Chesney pretty much agreed when he subsequently visited the press room. ''Along with selling a whole lot of tickets,'' he said, ''you have to grow the format'' a favorite country industry catchphrase ''and bring people in and introduce 'em, and we seem to be doing that.'' He waxed philosophical in front of the gathered press, repeating the phrase ''I want to be happy'' more than once, almost poignantly, as if he'd adopted it as a mantra. ''Entertainer of the Year has an expiration date. And fame has an expiration date. And life has an expiration date. So I'm gonna try and enjoy everything that happens to me. As for goals, I dunno. I just want to be happy and play music.''
No one at the press conference asked Chesney any personal questions, mindful of the fact that he might not appreciate being reminded that, last year at this time, he was newly wed to Renée Zellwegger, who joined him at a record-company party after the '05 telecast. The country press tends to be protective of its artists, especially when they cross over to tabloid visibility. That was evident when one lone soul in the press room started to ask Urban where fiancée Nicole Kidman was; the reporter was pointedly interrupted by a fellow journalist asking a ''how does it feel to win'' question since Urban did beat Chesney in the Top Male Vocalist category. Eventually, the first reporter got her question in again, leading Urban to give his usual curt/courtly answer on Kidman matters: ''She's not here, but thanks for asking.''
As Urban passed Brad Paisley in the hallway, he offered a few words of congratulations: ''Time well spent, evidently'' a reference to Paisley's Time Well Spent CD, which had a somewhat surprising win in the Album of the Year category. There were some other unexpected choices as well, as the ACM voters decided to spread the wealth around. Sara Evans won Top Female Vocalist for the first time, trumping past winners Gretchen Wilson, Martina McBride, and Lee Ann Womack, as well as hot newcomer Carrie Underwood. For Song of the Year, Brooks & Dunn's spiritually themed ''Believe'' beat an even bigger hit with a heavenly bent, Underwood's ''Jesus Take the Wheel'' but the latter song did take Single of the Year.
The least shocking win of the night was Rascal Flatts', for Top Vocal Group; they have the best-selling album in any genre so far this year. They may have only picked up one award, but they got an even more coveted prize: a virtually unheard-of two full songs on the telecast. The first, pre-recorded outside the arena earlier in the week, was the unusually Big & Rich-aping title track of their Me and My Gang disc (''We live to rock/ We rock to live'' were less true words ever spoken?). Their second and far more successful number had them joined on ''What Hurts the Most'' by Kelly Clarkson, who, along with Underwood, represented CBS' best attempt at counterprogramming the penultimate night of American Idol on Fox.
For country purists, the highlight of the night was a medley of a few of the late Buck Owens' greatest hits, performed by the supergroup of Paisley, Dwight Yoakam, Chris Hillman, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, and a real Mohawk out of water blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. Traditionalists probably had the least use for Trace Adkins' ''Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,'' which brought the stage as much booty as any showgirl revue in town.
Who'll benefit the most, commercially, from the ACMs? Would you believe... the Dixie Chicks? That might be a stretch, considered the distance the trio have put between themselves and the genre in recent weeks. But consider: Most years, there are one or two major country releases timed to coincide with the artist's live appearance on the ACMs or CMAs. This year, remarkably, there are no such examples of synergy on the release schedule, meaning that sales for anyone who rushes to stores on a post-ACMs buying spree will be dispersed among 2005 albums by Evans, Paisley, Underwood, etc. But while they're there, they may notice Taking the Long Way, the one big album that was released the day of the CMAs, coincidentally (or not?). And as they weigh whether to pick it up, they'll have to ask themselves: What Would Reba Do?