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Inside Strait: Country icon takes top prize at 2014 ACM Awards at MGM Grand


Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP

George Strait performs onstage at the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Sunday, April 6, 2014, in Las Vegas.

Updated Sunday, April 6, 2014 | 9:19 p.m.

2014 ACM Awards: Arrivals

Taylor Swift takes a selfie with a fan as she arrives for the 49th Academy of Country Music Awards show at the MGM Grand Garden Arena Sunday, April 6, 2014. Launch slideshow »

2014 ACM Awards: Photo Room

George Strait, winner of the Entertainer of the Year award, poses in the photo room during the 49th Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena Sunday, April 6, 2014. Launch slideshow »

49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards

Blake Shelton, left, and Shakira perform on stage at the 49th annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Sunday, April 6, 2014, in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Where can you find a comely gal wearing a teal dress, Resistol hat and brown Justin cowboy boots?

At the entrance of MGM Grand Garden Arena hours before the start of the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards. The arena will be filled for the national broadcast, which will air tape delayed on CBS at 8 p.m. (and this column will reveal award winners before the telecast, so steer clear if you are interested in maintaining suspense).

Some news hanging in the air before the broadcast is where next year's show will be held. It won't be Las Vegas, as ACM chief Bob Romeo said back in 2012.

"We’re planning on Dallas for 2015 to celebrate our 50th anniversary,” he said just after the 2012 show at MGM Grand. It'll be quite an event at Cowboys Stadium, which can seat 65,000 fans for such a show. Some numbers even climb to the stadium's top capacity of 110,000; another estimate is 50,000 to 55,000.

"We couldn’t be happier with Las Vegas,” Romeo said at the time. "We love Vegas. We just want to do an event for our 50th anniversary that will generate a lot of media interest.”

The blueprint for the ACM Awards over the next few years are to produce the show in Dallas next year, then return to Vegas for 2016 and beyond. The plan for the 2015 show is to somehow involve Las Vegas, too.

"It’s not as if we don’t want Vegas to be involved," Romeo said. "There is going to be some integration of Vegas for 2015.”

After the show, in the bowels of MGM Grand, Romeo reiterated that there would be "representation" of Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts connected to next year's show. More important: The 2016 show and the ACM Awards beyond that year are planned for Las Vegas. The hope from the ACM president is to stage the 2016 show in the new MGM Resorts arena in development behind Monte Carlo on the Strip.

Appearing in the media center at Romeo's side, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones went on and on about the grandeur of AT&T Stadium, and how he has always sought "the biggest events" and not just Cowboys games to play the stadium. "We have a hot market," he says. "

But it does appear that the ACM Awards is a one-off for next year.

As for tonight, a couple o' guys' guys, Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan, return as hosts. Performers include Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley with Sheryl Crow, Lee Brice, Bryan, Eric Church, Hunter Hayes, Miranda Lambert, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, Shakira, Shelton, George Strait, Keith Urban, The Band Perry and Lady Antebellum with Stevie Nicks. Over at the fourth annual ACM Fan Jam at Mandalay Bay, Florida Georgia Line headlines with performances by Rascal Flatts, among others.

Also tonight, at some point, is an announcement with more details about 2015. That's what we're hearing, at least. I'll be most interested in how Vegas is to be used as an ancillary site. I'm sure folks at MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, Fremont Street Experience and anywhere else in town are up for that assignment.

Updated at 5:10 p.m.: Ran into John Popper and his Blues Traveler bandmates on the red carpet. He is resigned to the fact that he'll never find his Rolex that was reportedly taken during his lapse-of-consciousness experience at Mandalay Bay a couple of weeks ago. "I'm taking someone with me no matter where I go in Vegas," said Popper, who is back at Mandalay Bay this weekend. He is writing with Thompson Square, nominated tonight for Duo of the Year and the reigning winners.

To launch the broadcast, The Band Perry opens with "Chainsaw," firing up the crowd. Bryan and Shelton stand at the front as the crowd is on its feet and covered in confetti from the cannon blast from the opening number.

Shelton gets off the first of what is expected to be many zingers: "Tonight is about live music. If you don't like live music, go down the block and see Britney Spears."

Jones is introduced as Shelton makes the formal announcement that the show is moving to Cowboys Stadium next year. "You don't see many awards shows in Cowboys Stadium," Shelton says, setting up Bryan, who adds, "You don't see any playoff games there, either!" Righteous. Good shtick from these two, who could host every awards as far as I'm concerned.

Updated at 5:30 p.m.: We have now run the lap around the ACM Awards track, from MGM Grand to Mandalay Bay with Florida Georgia Line to Brad Paisley at MGM Grand Talent Pool at the hotel's Grand Pool Complex. All before the first break. The broadcast is really fast-paced this year, the cuts quicker than I remember from a year ago.

Those I did not catch on the red carpet earlier: Wayne Newton. He is a particularly popular figure in the country music culture and had a top-selling country song a couple of decades ago with "The Letter." Vince Neil walked the carpet, too. He performed during the ACM Party for a Cause at the Linq, teaming with Justin Moore on the Motley Crue hit “Home Sweet Home.”

Updated at 5:40 p.m.: George Strait, who is the walking (and standing) definition of "universally respected," is out to sing "I Got a Car." He's a heavy favorite, at least one would think, to win Entertainer of the Year tonight. So effortless. His fellow artists, including Taylor Swift (who has been shown close-up at least a half-dozen times already) and Darius Rucker, are rapt. I see Popper has a great vantage point, seated with Thompson Square. Tim McGraw looks pretty svelte, as always.

Click to enlarge photo

Lady Antebellum and Stevie Nicks arrive at the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday, April 6, 2014, at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Click to enlarge photo

Taylor Swift arrives at the red carpet for the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Sunday, April 6, 2014, in Las Vegas.

Click to enlarge photo

Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert arrive on the red carpet at the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday, April 6, 2014, at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Click to enlarge photo

Keith Urban arrives at the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Sunday, April 6, 2014, in Las Vegas.

Updated at 5:45 p.m.: Guy Fieri, whose spiky-haired appearance fairly screams country music, plugs his new Guy's Vegas Kitchen & Bar restaurant at the Quad. That leads to his introduction of a moment always favored by the LVCVA, which should be titled “All the Groovy Stuff the Stars Did in Vegas This Week.” Good shots of the Linq, especially, in some nifty cross-promotion from a show staged at MGM Grand.

Updated at 5:50 p.m.: Aside: Eric Church is one who is a country artist but who does not give off a country vibe. Justin Moore, conversely, is a country star who who wears the hat quite comfortably.

Updated at 6 p.m.: The crossover-ian quality of the ACM Awards is made evident again with Shelton singing a duet of "Medicine" with Shakira. The refrain, "M-m-m-m-medicine," should be sung only by professionals. And these two are. Great tune. Shelton seems about two feet taller than Shakira, dressed in a sort of country-fied red-lace corset and skirt number and thigh-high boots.

Updated at 6:13 p.m.: An hour into the broadcast, the first award is upon us, announced by Swift. Vocal Duo of the Year, which goes to (giggle) Florida Georgia Line. Conveniently, they are already onstage at Mandalay Bay. Who wears to a nationally televised awards show a simple V-neck T-shirt, which you can buy three-to-a-pack at Walmart? These guys!

Uh-oh. Shelton and Bryan are threatening to take a selfie from the audience, inspired obviously by Ellen DeGeneres' photo from the Oscars. Strait wants no part. Aldean (“Not famous enough!”) and McGraw (“Boooooring!”) are passed over by the two happy-go-lucky hosts. The two finally take one of themselves. They turn around because Sheryl Crow is in the background. Hyuck!

All of this leads to Lady Antebellum with Stevie Nicks for "Golden," with the crowd roaring at the first sound of Nicks' still-stirring voice. Then it's a full-force take on that classic Fleetwood Mac country number, "Rhiannon." Great to see Nicks up there. The first time I ever saw her in performance was in 2002, in a VH1 "Divas" concert, with The Dixie Chicks, in this very arena. Cher, Shakira and Celine were in that show. One of the great shows ever in this venue. Closed with an Elvis medley (and Cher stole the performance with a full-costumed "Heartbreak Hotel"). Hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, as it happens.

Updated at 6:30 p.m.: Winner of the fan-voted New Artist of the Year is ... Justin Moore! He's about the height of the late Dudley Moore and seems too short to ride the good rides, but a giant talent. Big voice. Big attitude. Big hat. Big tears, too. Thanks his wife as he stammers through his speech.

Updated at 6:35 p.m.: Bryan really likes giving it to Aldean, saying: "He is a singer first and a hunter second, and if he hunted like he sings, he'd have a hit every five years!" He's on with "When She Says Baby." He's a solid citizen, that Aldean.

Updated at 6:40 p.m.: Daft Punk is introduced and ... wait! It's a space-helmeted Bryan and Shelton! So funny. The Single Record of the Year winner is Miranda Lambert with "Mama's Broken Heart," and she's dressed down from her earlier appearance on the red carpet. White top and torn jeans. Oh, and what seems to be a very expensive, dripping-with-silver necklace.

Updated at 6:50 p.m.: If there were an award for the most jokes about a single subject, it would be the marriage of Lambert and Shelton. "We share the same taste in songwriting, we are nominated for the same award — Entertainer of the Year — and we share the same bed!" Shelton says. "You know what I'm talkin' about?" She sings "Automatic," in which she makes a happy reference to "three on the tree," a long-lost transmission style.

Up now is Pleasant Valley High School of Chico, Calif., graduate Aaron Rodgers to help announce Song of the Year. That goes to Lee Brice and "I Drive Your Truck." Brice is a backward-hat sort of guy. Looks like he ambled onstage from the 55th row. Gets a standing O, nonetheless.

Updated at 7 p.m.: The award for Best Seated Performance While Wearing a Tux is McGraw, with "Meanwhile Back at Mama's," joined by his wife, Faith Hill. These two always look and sound fantastic. He's seated and she is standing, probably so she can show off this unbelievably beautiful silver gown. Stand up and kiss her, Tim! Ah. He does. Finally. Whew.

Updated at 7:10 p.m.: The most production value of any number thus far is Florida Georgia Line and Bryan with "This Is How We Roll," with BMX cyclists from Nitro Circus vaulting from dual ramps through fire bursts at the back of the stage. This is today's country!

Male Vocalist of the Year up now, as Carrie Underwood — so successful that she is hardly ever referred to as "American Idol" winner — announces Aldean as the winner. He's wearing this giant chain on his belt. "It was a shock last year to win it and even a bigger shock this year," he says. "It's been a hell of a ride, and I hope it doesn't end any time soon." He's about ready for "Legends in Concert" treatment, eh?

Updated at 7:15 p.m.: Toby Keith, who (double-plug alert) is a huge fan of Carrot Top and whose house band at Toby Keith's Bar & Grill at Harrah's is the thunderous Cash Presley, has the first and maybe only horn section of the night. #Trombonesolo. He sings "Shut Up and Hold On." Seems a pretty clear directive.

In the press room, Moore talks of his six-year career and winning New Artist of the Year. "I would have been happy to win Best Female Vocalist," he says. Also says, "I was curious if this award was actually taller than me." He's 5-foot-4 or so. Genuinely grateful to win the award.

Updated at 7:20 p.m.: Trotted out are Jones and Strait to promote next year's show. "It's gonna be the event of a lifetime, and it's going to be AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys," Jones says. And as we make height references, win a bet by knowing that Jones is a few inches taller than Strait.

Meantime, Vocal Group of the Year is The Band Perry. They are a really strong arena act, as they proved during iHeart Radio last year, at MGM Grand.

Updated at 7:25 p.m.: Hayes at the mic now, singing "Invisible" for a cause we can get behind, fighting childhood hunger. He appeared in last year's show with Stevie Wonder, and his popularity in the industry continues to grow.

Updated at 7:30 p.m.: Something to know about Aldean: He has sold out three stadiums — not clubs, music halls or arenas, but stadiums — in his upcoming U.S. tour. "I just passed Garth Brooks in the hallway," he said in the media center. "When I was a kid, he was the one who was doing that."

Updated at 7:35 p.m.: Female Vocalist of the Year ... Lambert! The awards she has won in Vegas are multiplying like so many tribbles. When Trisha Yearwood announced the winner, Lambert was hanging backstage with fellow nominee Sheryl Crow. Quite a lineup, which included Kacey Musgraves, Swift and Underwood.

Updated at 7:47 p.m.: Remember the line from "City Slickers" where Billy Crystal referred to Jack Palance as "a saddle bag with eyes"? That description could be used on Merle Haggard tonight, as a tribute medley honoring his Crystal Milestone Award is introduced by Brooks. And brother is Brooks still popular, with a huge roar meeting his appearance onstage. He tells the crowd that Haggard is 77 tonight. What's that on the craps table? The hard 14? Crowd sings "Happy Birthday," and he takes the mic and says, "Country music has been great to me all my life, and it's great to me tonight."

Updated at 8:12 p.m.: Chris O'Donnell and L.L. Cool J — those twin towers of country music who are hosting Monday night's “ACM Presents: Salute to the Troops” at MGM Grand Garden Arena — dole out the night's biggest prize: Entertainer of the Year. The winner is ... damn Strait! Standing O for the guy who even Brooks calls “The King of Country Music.”

"I've always said that I've got the best fans in the world, and this proves it," Strait says as the thunderous applause subsides. "It's been an amazing 30 years. Thank you so much for your support. I love all of you. Thank you so much." Maybe it's the humility that wins people over.

"Our hero won tonight!" shouts Shelton, himself a nominee.

Later, in the media center, Strait tried to explain the idolatry nature of his fame. "What are people thinking?" he said to laughter. "I've had my heroes over the years. People like George Jones and Merle Haggard, not to compare myself to them at all ... but if it's a piece of that, I'm flattered by it."

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