By Whitney Pastorek
Updated April 05, 2009 at 12:00 PM EDT

The 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards air tonight on CBS, and the Music Mix has a backstage pass to all the action! Okay, I wrote that like a bad press release, but you get my point — after two exciting days in rehearsals, it’s time for the big show, and I’m hanging out at the MGM Grand Garden Arena with my laptop hoping to lure some of your favorite country acts into my lair and pick their brain for juicy blog tidbits. The blog must be fed, Mixers!

So many questions to be answered: Will Kenny Chesney pick up his 44th annual Entertainer of the Year trophy? Last year, Taylor Swift drenched herself in water; tonight, will she set herself on fire? And will Carrie Underwood’s dress rise up and devour us all? The show is mere minutes away from starting — I’ve just come in from the “orange” carpet, and I’ll share some of what I learned out there along the way. Deep breaths. And away we go…


4:58 We are mere moments away from starting, and I am sitting in a totally non-descript conference room in the MGM Grand complex, with one-on-one booths assigned to various TV and video outlets. GAC has a logo and stars; the AP has a giant red “AP” on a stand; the Fox affiliates at least have a xeroxed sign for their booth. I have one chair and a bottle of water.

5:00 Superstar medley time! Brooks & Dunn cede the stage to Taylor Swift after about 15 seconds of music — for the ringtonelovers among us, presumably — and I can feel the wall of the actual arena rumbling.

5:02 I knew I’d have to hear “It Happens” eventually.

5:03 That white dress Carrie’s wearing is not The Dress, FYI.

5:05 I gotta find a new room to be in. They’re gonna turn down the lights and turn off the sound in here, and that’s not gonna fly for the ol’ live blog, I fear. It is entirely possible that the live-blogging portion of this will be eliminated in favor of just doing interviews or something. In other words: don’t count on this space for your up-to-the-minute broadcast information.

5:08 Reba is on dress number two, and just made a pot joke. And a gay joke. On the carpet, I asked her what the chances are she’ll have a wardrobe malfunction. “Ain’t gonna happen,” she said.

5:11 Kenny Chesney gets the first real performance of the night — “Out Last Night,” a new single off his upcoming greatest hits album — and is sporting an extra classy sleeveless t-shirt. At this point, Kenny, why even wear pants? Kick out the jams!

5:16 Song of the Year: “In Color,” Jamey Johnson. Score one for neck beards.

5:17 We go to commercial. I’m headed out to find a better place to sit. These video crews are making me very nervous.

5:22 All the video crews are mad at me because I won’t let them turn the sound off on the TV in here. Meanwhile, Heidi Newfield is singing “Johnny and June” on a flaming circular platform. 1) I get it and 2) I guess that means Taylor will not be self-immolating later. Hmm.

5:25 What are the other elements? Earth? Maybe she will be mudwrestling Miley?

5:27 Vocal Group: Rascal Flatts. Yawn.

5:28 What do you figure these guys spend in a year on bedazzling?

5:30 We’re at commercial, and I’m going to use these breaks to dispense red carpet highlights. Since we just finished Vocal Group, how about this: Did you know that Little Big Town and the Zac Brown Band are currently embroiled in a basketball tournament, which is tied 2-2? And that ZBB wear matching uniforms and headbands on the court? Uh, yeah.

5:34 I like this Toby Keith song — and I like the horn section he added on this performance — but I could do without my local radio station insisting on playing it every 45 minutes. What’s being overplayed in your markets, Mixers?

5:37 Okay, I’ve just been told Jennifer Love Hewitt is headed back here, which means these guys are going to try and turn the sound down as far as it can go. Will perhaps be live-blogging by sight alone in a short while. I would really, really like to not miss Jamey Johnson, though.

5:39 Dude. This “In Color” shizz is FREAKING ME OUT.

5:41 No seriously — you guys are seeing this, too, right? It’s not just me, right? I know they’re duplicating the video and whatever… but it was not this psychedelic. Is this because all I’ve had to eat since 11 is a bag of Fritos?

5:43 Commercial! Since the Zac Brown Band took us into this one, here’s some more carpet truth from your Top New Group winners: They are heading out on their first headlining tour in the fall, and bringing three Atlanta artists with them — Sonia Leigh, Levi Lowrey, and Nick Cowan. They also told me they plan to release two full-length studio records every year from here on out; in fact, they’re already “way behing” on their recording.

5:47 Does Jamie Foxx do anything BUT awards shows at this point?

5:48 TV is getting turned down. I am not broken up about missing this.

5:50 Jamie Foxx does a damn convincing job of making us believe he knows George Strait/cares.

5:53 I am enjoying looking at Jack Ingram and Jason Aldean. I cannot hear what they’re saying.

5:54 Your Top New Artist is: Julianne Hough. In light of this event, I share with you a conversation I had with Luke Bryan and Eric Church on the red carpet.

ME: What do you have to do to set yourself apart in this crowded market?

ERIC: You need a great record. And you have to tour until you build an army.

LUKE: You have to do it with your music…

ERIC: Not because you can dance.

5:57 More from Luke and Eric during this commercial break: The two men were dressed almost identically on the carpet, causing me to joke they should go on the road as a duo. They’ve known each other since their long-ago songwriting days — Eric got signed about three months before Luke — and their friendship is plenty bromancey. I asked Eric how he’s feeling about his new record, and Luke said, “The fact that it sold 50 thousand copies the first week probably makes you feel pretty damn good.” Luke’s got a new record himself, with first single “Do I” — which he wrote with Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum, with their ladyfriend Hillary Scott chiming in on background vocals — set to drop soon.

6:01 Between the guy screwing with the closed captioning on the TV and the fact that I think that’s David Copperfield on stage, I am thoroughly confused right now. Though I’m pretty sure Taylor Swift is about to come out of that box.

6:02 Well, look at that. Copperfield just made Swiftie appear. And I cannot hear her well enough to know if her voice is its usual tortured-lamb-like self in this performance or not, so I leave it to you commenters to report back. Gosh her hair is so pretty, isn’t it?

6:05 James Otto is in the room, and the Zac Brown Band is on their way. Will try and grab both! And am also wondering if David Copperfield can perhaps reverse his magic now?

6:06 Uh-oh. Taylor Swift is getting a surprise special award from Reba! It’s a Crystal Milestone Award, for selling a billion records and bringing the music back to the kids! And it is, for all the crap I give this kid, pretty much deserved.

6:07 Lady Antebellum! Love these kids, and I love that I’ve seen them at two straight awards ceremonies where they knew they had no shot in their category, and yet they could not be in better spirits. “I think we’re out of our league,” joked Charles about being up against Rascal Flatts, but all three said they honestly were more nervous about this performance than anything. “Until we get that over with, we can’t relax,” said Dave. Oh, and here’s some news: They’ve cut 8 songs for a new record. And Hillary Scott got a guitar for her birthday, and can now play a G chord.

6:17 While Lee Ann Womack does her quiet thing, I grabbed a chat with James Otto in the hallway, who scored an ACM tonight for co-penning “In Color.” I asked if that song means a return to traditionalism is afoot, and he said, “I don’t think it ever left.” He’s glad to see Jamey score some mainstream success, however, and hopes he can bring a younger crowd to the traditional side. “Yeah, cause he looks like someone they know from down at the gas station,” I joked, and James laughed. “Jamey’s always been real,” he said. “There’s enough glamour in country music as it is, and there’s room for all of it.” As Zac Brown came walking up the hallway, we got to talking about neck beards, and for the record, James says he could grow one in about two days.

6:21 Top Vocal Duo: Sugarland! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

6:22 More from James Otto! He’s dropping a new single in about a month, and it has a completely awesome name: “Since You Brought It Up, Why Don’t You Bring It Over?” And he’s cut about seven tracks for a new album destined for fall, more of the vibe he calls “country soul” that America fell ever so in love with on “Just Got Started Loving You.

6:23 Live blog all-star Jack Ingram is back. What do you think, Jack? “I love it. I love that I got to zip Julianne Hough’s dress up.” How did the telepromptering go? “I feel like I could have read and read for days.”

6:24 Jack says that Keith Urban — who he would totally make out with — opened a lot of doors for him. “He comes from the same school of music that I do. We have a lot of similar influences. He hit it, and kind of opened the way for us. There’s a lot of room on radio for guys like us because of him. He opened a wide path.”

6:26 I have been instructed, not by Jack Ingram, to tell you all how “impossibly hot” Jack Ingram looks. He really does look good. He and Keith have matching hair.

6:27 Oh, Nicole.

6:29 Your commercial tidbit also involves Jack Ingram: The Lost Trailers informed me on the carpet that not only is Jack an excellent artist, he makes for an excellent baggage retrieval service. (Seems he picked up two bags they lost in the Phoenix airport and transported them here.) And here’s something cool: This summer’s Lost Trailers tour is called Lean, Clean, and Local. They’re hiring all local crews, renting all local equipment, and teaming up with Keep America Beautiful to make it a truly low-environmental-impact, economy-boosting trip.

6:33 New Miranda single, “Dead Flowers,” is currently being beamed worldwide. I love it — what do you think, Mixers?

6:35 Talked to Miranda on the carpet and tried to videotape her Must List for our weekly show, but a camera malfunction tragically reduced that conversation to dust. Here’s what was on it: Kelly Clarkson’s new CD, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Law & Order: SVU.

6:36 LeAnn Rimes did not come down the red carpet.

6:37 I wonder how hard it is to be LeAnn Rimes right now.

6:38 I really like LeAnn Rimes a lot. And her speech was a ton better than the one the stand-in gave during rehearsal.

6:39 I encourage all of you to use your very best Nashville Star voices when evaluating John Rich’s performance.

6:42 While John Rich stands up for the working man, Jimmy Wayne is lurking in the hallway, so we’ll let the “Do You Believe Me Now” singer have this commercial break. We had a great talk about what you gotta do to stand out, and Jimmy’s answer was simple: “It all comes down to a song. Every executive has their job because of a song. Every artist has a career because of a song. The people at home don’t care about politics. They care about turning it on or turning it off. And if it sounds great, they’ll buy it.” He’s headed out on tour with Brad Paisley soon, and I warned him that Brad is known for being something of a prankster. “If he wants to play, I’ll play,” Jimmy said. Special note to Brad: Jimmy used to work in a state prison.

6:47 Wait, there’s a Hannah Montana movie coming out?

6:48 Please estimate the chances that Billy Ray will be introducing Miley has “my little girl” well into her 40s.

6:49 Given the swaybots and the blue lighting here tonight, I guess we can all skip Miley’s forthcoming Idol performance now. I mean, assuming any of us were tuning in specifically for that in the first place.

6:50 I have been warned there are pyrotechnics coming…

6:51 Okay, so that happened.

6:52 There is no better hat in country music than Eddie Montgomery’s hat. That thing cracks me up every single time. I want to eat snacks off of it.

6:55 Speaking of duos, had a cute chat with Joey + Rory on the carpet, the husband and wife duo from those commercials. They actually say things like “We are a love story unfolding in front of people,” but just when I thought I might pass out from all the shiny happy in-love-ness, I noticed Rory was wearing Carharrt overalls under his suit jacket. “I hope the guys in Rascal Flatts don’t have the same thing on,” he joked.

6:57 I have been told that Kenny Chesney is not coming backstage if he wins… but that he might call me on my cell phone. OMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMG

7:00 Is it just me, or does Carrie Underwood look a little bit like Jabba the Hutt right now?

7:01 The video correspondent next to me leans over to her friends and whispers, “I almost wore that.” That joke never gets old.

7:02 While Carrie keeps us weeping to the oldies, it has been announced that Rascal Flatts are on their way back here, but don’t have a lot of time. Everyone goes scrambling to their positions. Something tells me they’ll not be stopping by to shoot the breeze with me and my laptop.

7:04 What did I say about that dress joke?

7:06 Top Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley! Wow.

7:07 I think we got Sugarland coming up after this commercial break. Meanwhile, let’s perform a public service: Help the Eli Young Band pick their next single. Should it be:

A) “Radio Waves”

B) “Guinevere”

C) “Enough is Enough”

Text your answer to — oh wait, I don’t have that technology.

7:12 As Reba performs her new single, “Strange,” we can only close our eyes and hope to god Miley Cyrus is watching. It’s a voice you can’t forget, attached to a song with a great hook, and the woman on stage is using her eyes and her strong shoulders to communicate a world of emotion that hydraulic platforms and stripper moves simply cannot. Like I’ve been saying for days: Classy broad, this Reba.

7:15 Top Female Vocalist: Carrie Underwood. I’m fine with that — you?

7:16 Carrie always gives such lovely, heartfelt speeches. Am I supposed to hate her to have cred or something? Even when she’s dressed like Jabba the Hutt and killing my favorite Randy Travis song, I cannot hate her!

7:18 K I lied about Sugarland. The presence of the soldier on stage tells me this will be Trace Adkins.

7:19 I want a Trace Adkins/Jamey Johnson duet. And I want them to stand with Jamey facing forward, and Trace facing to the back, and then I want Trace to wear a Trace Adkins mask on the back of his head so that his ponytail looks like a neck beard.

7:21 The snarky comments have pretty much ground to a halt back here. It’s no Radiohead with the USC Marching Band, but this is pretty cool.

7:23 Running out of red carpet interviews to fill the commercial breaks, and the one-on-one room is slooooow. Let’s go back to Little Big Town! They seem very happy in their new home at Capitol Records, and promise their next album — unlike Road to Here — will only be released once, probably in early 2010. And they are, as I alluded to earlier, totally in love with their current tourmates, the Zac Brown Band. I asked if — given their success with the “Life in a Northern Town” Sugarland/Jake collabo — they have any exciting new “event” performances planned, and it seemed like they were only half-kidding when they said they’d like to team up with ZBB for something called “Four Singers + Four Singers.” Then the basketball smack talk started.

7:27 Julianne Hough is back here, with her dress intact. Reba’s latest dress is not doing her any favors in the color department. And Sugarland are about to ROCK YOU.

7:29 Is there another woman in any genre of music who could have made that cheesy camera angle work?


7:33 I am giving Kristian Bush his own Crystal Miracle Award for being the only man on the planet who could graciously put up with his female partner getting all the attention, all of the time. The dude is a saint. A talented, talented saint.

7:34 Did the sound go out at home, too?

7:35 Seriously, Trace, Jamey — think about that duet. It would be like a glorious chorus of Ents. You would make millions.

7:37 Had a nice time with Jason Aldean on the carpet. New album drops Tuesday, and he says he’s hoping to surprise people a little with this one. He’s also enjoying the gradual rise of his career after the breakout success of “Hicktown”: “It’s great to hit huge,” he said, “but you’re not often around too long when that happens.” Next single will probably be “Big Green Tractor”…

7:41 We’re back! But I am going out into the hallway to see if I can wrangle us a Sugarland. I leave you in the capable hands of Blake Shelton… WHO IT SHOULD BE NOTED did NOT “replace” Tim McGraw today. They just kind of didn’t announce his performance until really, really late.

7:44 Album of the Year (I have no idea what Blake and Reba are talking about because they’ve turned the sound off again): Taylor Swift. I’m going back out in the hall again.

7:49 In the press room, Toby Keith has just finished ripping a journalist from The Tennessean a new one over something. I came in late, but I’m pretty sure it was this piece about Ethan Hawke’s profile of Kris Kristofferson in Rolling Stone, and it involved f-bombs. It was, needless to say, WAY more entertaining than Rascal Flatts.

7:54 Hey Sugarland! How did tonight feel? You can just say “good” if you want.

KB: It was awesome!

JN: Dear Whitney, just tell us what we should say right now.

KB: It was good.

JN: It was sexy! We’re bringing the S-E-X to the A-C-Ms!

7:56 The sound is down on the TV right now so… yeah, what is Matthew McConaughey doing here?

7:57 The gist of that story = George Strait will get you laid.

7:58 Entertainer of the Year: Carrie Underwood. SHUT. UP.

7:59 As Carrie dissolves into a deep deep puddle before your very eyes, I am mostly just upset Kenny Chesney isn’t gonna gonna call me now.

8:00 A little disturbed by Carrie’s shout-out to Matthew McConaughey. A little impressed by it. And given the pot/gay jokes that kicked off the show, I think a sex joke is just the place to end it. The comments section is open all night, Mixers — weigh in on the winners, the performances, and anything else that comes to mind. Thanks for hangin’!