Credit: Rob Hill/FilmMagic

From deep inside the ice-cold environs of Nashville’s Sommet Center, it’s the 2009 CMA Awards… and the Music Mix has your ticket to all the hot action!!

Did you like how I did that? “Ice-cold” environs and “hot” action? Yes, that is the kind of quality writing you will come to expect from me as I sit here inside this hockey arena and pirate wi-fi while watching country music’s best and brightest prepare for Wednesday’s show. Things are rolling right along on this first day of rehearsals: When I got here this morning, the white and red boards of the hockey rink were still visible, but they’ve been masked over the course of the afternoon; now the only way you’d know this is the home of the Nashville Predators is the giant saber-toothed tiger head hanging from the ceiling. Out of which, I am told, the Predators skate at the top of every game. Stay classy, Nashvegas!

This is the first of a series of Not Quite Liveblogs (patent pending) that I will be filing over the course of the next three days, bringing you a preview of what to expect from the telecast, and featuring some short interviews with your favorite musicians as they wander by. Today on the program: Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Billy Currington, and your charming hosts, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. Plus, scoop on the performances, and an answer to the most anticipated question of the night: How many different dresses will Carrie wear this year? Read on…

12:30 p.m. Reba McEntire is so good at being a country star that she started rehearsal early, and was finished before she was supposed to start. The crisp redhead will be singing her newly-minted Top 10 hit “Consider Me Gone” on the big show, and her final run-thru was the usual master class in both effortless vocal performance and warm yet enigmatic professionalism. When we caught up backstage for a bit afterwards, she effused about her new label, Valory Music, saying their enthusiasm reminds her of working on the old Reba TV show. While performing “Consider Me Gone,” she says, she’s trying to make everybody there proud. She’s also psyched to watch Brad and Carrie host, and maybe she’ll pick up some tips for her inevitable gig at the podium of the 2010 ACMs. “You never quit learning,” she says. “You always gotta improve on comedy, cause it’s the hardest. Delivering a straight line is the easy thing, but to deliver comedy exactly right, that’s the hard part.” And yes, she has heard that old joke where you tell somebody to ask you “What’s the secret of comedy?” and then you cut them off by saying “Timing!” before they get the whole question out. I can check “Make Reba grimace” off my bucket list!

1:13 Your CMA Hosts Brad and Carrie appear on stage: Carrie in a sequined vest, tight black pants, and stiletto-heeled boots, and Brad in a backwards baseball cap and jeans. They start running through teleprompter copy with a dry, easy rapport. The stage design is fairly typical Televised Awards Show Chic, with a glowing, arched proscenium that, according to one of my colleagues, looks like the crown of the Statue of Liberty. We decide they should put the upcoming performers on top of it, and have them wave merrily during the voiceovers that lead into commercial breaks. (“Up next, Darius Rucker! Vince Gill! And a performance from Crystal Gayle, with special guest Ne-Yo!”) (NOTE: One of those things is not actually happening.)

1:17 Carrie refers to Brad as a “Cowboy Casanova.” Later, Brad calls her the “Hostess with the Mostess Costume Changes.” We learn via their monologue banter that Taylor Swift is opening the show. Meanwhile, I have decided to refer to Swift exclusively as “T-Swizzle” for the remainder of the week. T-Swizzle, FYI, will be performing two songs on the broadcast, lest you think she at any point be underexposed.

1:26 As Carrie practices her introduction of Brad, they are running glamour shots of Mr. Paisley on the arena jumbotrons. They are running them upside down.

1:28 Brad and Carrie are also doing the occasional parody song, or, as Brad calls them, “doohickeys.” The one that will preface the Lady Antebellum performance of “Need You Now” involves sleeping airline pilots.

1:34 Since the show happens on Veterans Day, Carrie’s teleprompter copy asks her to pay tribute to the Armed Forces. As she attempts this, the boom camera to her right comes swinging in front of her and she starts to giggle. Oh no. One does not giggle while addressing the military at a country music awards show, Carrie! But now she and Brad both have the giggles, like a couple of bored high school kids at a wedding. Carrie starts reading another block of copy in a cheerful, chirpy tone, then realizes it’s about Brooks & Dunn breaking up. “I’m not supposed to be so happy, am I?” she deadpans. We learn that Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top is performing with Brooks & Dunn, which is handy cause that rehearsal is closed to media tomorrow.

1:46 Can’t hear much of what they’re saying off-mic, but from the little I’m picking up, I’m getting the sneaking suspicion that Carrie, long considered in my household to be something of a perfectly pleasant but somewhat stiff prom queen, might actually be really funny.

1:52 Now Brad and Carrie are on a platform in the middle of the room, on which I am assuming T-Swizzle will platform at least once during the show. It is important to surround her with fans at all times so everyone knows how much people like her.

1:53 Brad’s intro for Kenny Chesney’s performance — regarding Chesney’s many, many wins as Entertainer of the Year, a category in which both men are once again nominated — is absolutely priceless, and Brad knocks the tone out of the park.

1:57 Brad has gone rogue and is now lounging in a seat towards the back of the rink to practice introducing T.Swizzle’s “Fifteen.” It is suggested by a producer that he remain standing at all times.

2:25 I sit down with Carrie Underwood — who I’ve inadvertently referred to as “Blondy McBlondeBlonde” when speaking to at least one publicist today, because that is sometimes what I call her in my brain, and sometimes there is no wall between my brain and my mouth — and we have a quick chat before lunch. First observation: Carrie Underwood seems like a genuinely cool person. And I am not just saying that because I am scared of her fans! “You don’t mess with them,” she agrees. “I’m glad they’re on my side.” She also doesn’t seem as tired as she should for a girl that just dropped an album and is now co-hosting the big ol’ awards show. I ask if Thursday’s gonna be a letdown, and she gives a wry chuckle. “I’m gonna be sitting around on Thanksgiving like, ‘I’m bored…'” Ha! I laughed. You’re secretly a really funny person, aren’t you, Carrie? “It’s amazing, isn’t it,” she sighs. “I do have a personality in there somewhere. Although I don’t display it often.” I asked her if this was in some ways because of the clamoring, Idol-inspired fans, the decision to close herself off. “I think that lesson took a little while to learn,” she says. “But that certainly did make me want to be more closed off to the world. Or I guess you could go nuts. But I decided to be closed off.”

Then it was time for the tough questions: Is she bummed not to get an Entertainer of the Year nod? “Oh, I don’t deserve it,” she says, without hestiation. “I had five shows this year! Entertainer of the Year is about getting out there and busting your rear. And while I was busting my rear, I was writing, I was recording, doing a lot of stuff not in the public eye. I was still working, but I do not feel slighted in the least. Not even one teeny tiny bit.” So… did she throw her female solidarity vote behind T-Swizzle? “I will not disclose my voting,” she says, with that little comedic note in her voice again. Okay. Finally, don’t look for a Jabba the Hutt dress or anything equally crazy in her performance — she says there’s gonna be some “stuff” onstage that she’s “never attempted before,” but that’s it.

And the dress total? Nine!

3:26 Back from lunch. I do not know if any of you are aware of this but Brad Paisley can really play the guitar! In fact, he more or less never stops playing the guitar. In between sessions of absent Telecaster noodling, Brad and his band work on “Welcome to the Future,” cranking out some pretty sweet Pac-Man jumbotron graphics in the process. I wonder if these are the same as the ones he uses on tour? I do not know, because despite the poor man’s protestations, I still haven’t been to see his real show. I swear this is not on purpose. On the first run-thru, Brad tweaks the levels on his vocals repeatedly. After a somewhat disastrous performance on the CMTs this summer, I am glad to see him being more diligent about the sound. Also: I cannot think of another artist, country or otherwise, who would run Linux code as a stage visual.

3:52 Brad is done, over 30 minutes early. I am actually falling behind here! How dare they be so efficient! When am I supposed to get all the work done that I was saving for rehearsal dead time???

4:09 Tim McGraw’s band is practicing the track of “Southern Voice” that they’ll be using on the broadcast. One assumes this means that, unlike the ACMs, he’s actually going to show up!

4:17 Ta-da! Tim McGraw is now on stage singing “Southern Voice,” in a very fetching newsboy cap. The screens behind him are projecting all the names in the lists that comprise the verses, so you can sing along at home. Also, the Proscenium of Liberty is now lit a bloody, vampiric red. This is the place in the Not Quite Liveblog where I write “Twilight,” in hopes that it will draw traffic on Google.

4:30 They get ready to run through McGraw again. “Heads up, wall coming down!” says the stage manager over the arena P.A. system, as a giant wall descends in front of that half of the stage. “Oh, look at them scurry!” says the stage manager with barely contained glee, as people get out of the way. Tim is now wearing his trademark black cowboy hat.

4:54 I am standing in line to interview Brad Paisley. Billy Currington’s band has started up the background for “People Are Crazy.” Which, according to David Letterman, is the All Time Greatest Country Song In the History of Ever, Ever.

5:01 Hey Brad Paisley! Thanks so much for dressing up for rehearsal earlier! “Screw you. Print that.” Uh. I’m just saying… she looked really nice. And in your jeans and ballcap, you looked… “She’s here for class and grace and poise and integrity and beauty,” Paisley says. “I don’t know what I’m here for. I think it’s court jester. I feel no pressure to be pretty with her out there, that’s the nice thing.”

He goes on to tell me that much of the copy I heard him read earlier was a template, and that he’s going to give notes and go back and rewrite some of it — his intros for Keith Urban and Carrie, for example. The one thing he’s not going to write is an Entertainer of the Year speech. “Hell no,” he says, when I ask. “I don’t know how people are going to vote. I think it’s the first year in a long time when it’s not for sure. It depends on how they see it.” Then he asks a very good question: “What’s important?”

As for the number he’ll be playing on the show, “Welcome to the Future,” he says, “I had a different agenda with this song. My agenda was, ‘Here’s how I feel.’ Not, ‘Oh, I think this is a hit.’ I had a blast. But I’m tired.” This is most likely because of the song’s vaguely politicized content, which ends with a commentary on race relations in both a pre- and post-Obama society, and a shout-out to Martin Luther King, Jr. “I knew some people would maybe take it the wrong way, or wonder where I was headed,” Paisley says. “My intentions were very benign. But, I mean, you can’t sing ‘I love you’ without somebody getting offended.” (And that Linux code on the video screens? It’s a placeholder for the real thing, which will be MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech… written in Linux code. Cool.)

5:16 There is some dude in shorts and a t-shirt just sort of loitering behind Billy Currington as he sings. It is not uncreepy. When I talk to Billy after his souncheck, he says it was just the monitor guy. I tell him I was hoping they were going to dress him up like the old man in the song for the actual show. I don’t think he got what I meant. I ask him if he thinks “People Are Crazy” really is the All Time Greatest Country Song in the History of Ever, Ever. “Not really,” he says. “But I’m still having fun with it. That was a very nice thing for Letterman to say. Afterwards he came up and said it was his favorite song, and he was glad we were there. Real simple and sweet.” And in case you, like me, think this is Currington’s first CMA performance, think again: He performed with Shania Twain in 2006, duetting on “Party for Two.” But he isn’t scared to be out there on his own this year. “I like it better that way,” he laughs. “It’s more me. Last time I felt like I was dancing around like some chicken.”

5:22 Am now sitting on a golf cart in the hallway, waiting for Tim McGraw. I’m interviewing him for a page in the magazine next week (on newsstands Friday!) about the differences between being a movie star and a rock star. When he arrives, he is desperately checking his BlackBerry for the Titans score. I try not to hold that against him.

5:40 We have moved on to our last rehearsal of the night, Ms. Miranda Lambert. She’s performing “White Liar,” and since I have interviewed this kick-ass young lady ad what-passes-for-nauseum this year, I’m cutting out of here to transcribe some tape and fetch some dinner. Be back tomorrow for breakfast rehearsals with the Lady A’s and Kenny Chesney, and an afternoon with Sugarland, Jason Aldean, and Darius Rucker. Have questions for any of tomorrow’s acts? Leave ’em in the comments, and I’ll see what I can do! And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @EWMusicMix

Photo Credit:Rob Hill/FilmMagic