- Associated Press - Sunday, April 3, 2011

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Brad Paisley kicked off the Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday with a little help from friends.

Three members of the iconic group Alabama joined Paisley on his new song “Old Alabama,” bringing the crowd at the MGM Grand to its feet Sunday night. It was one of several big collaborations scheduled for the night; moments later, Steven Tyler and Carrie Underwood rocked out to “Undo It” the segued to the Aerosmith classic “Walk This Way.”

The show opened with co-host Blake Shelton singing a slow song to what appeared to be his fiance _ and the night’s big nominee _ Miranda Lambert. But as the camera panned in on a blonde draped over a couch, it revealed the show’s other co-host, Reba McEntire in a blonde wig.

“All right, Blake,” she said, “that’s enough rehearsing for your wedding night. We’ve got a show to do. Focus!”

Reba and Shelton showed immediate chemistry. McEntire is an experienced veteran after 13 years as host and invited him to join her this year.

“Blake and I have decided there will be no Charlie Sheen jokes, no Lindsay Lohan jokes and no jokes about celebrity scandals,” Reba said, ” … so good night everybody!”

Lambert is the night’s top individual nominee after topping last year’s awards with three wins. She’s up for the biggest award of the night, entertainer of the year, but says she’s conflicted.

Some of the nominated singers in the category sell out stadiums and are among the most popular artists in music, regardless of genre. She’s just starting down that path and doesn’t feel like she’s reached that level.

At the same time, she can’t deny the jump she’s made since she stormed the ACMs last year with the album “Revolution.” That album is still spawning hits and helped her to seven nominations for Sunday’s awards show.

“I feel like maybe I’m just being humble and I don’t know that I should take it home yet because I know Brad Paisley’s doing stadiums now,” Lambert said. “I’m not there yet. But it is up to the fans, so if I did win that’d be awesome.”

The entertainer of the year category is the most prestigious award, and with fans voting for it, it’s especially hard to predict. Neither Carrie Underwood nor Kenny Chesney _ winners of the last six entertainer awards _ are nominated this year. And only Toby Keith, a nominee and two-time winner, has taken home the ACM’s top award. Paisley, Taylor Swift and Keith Urban have won the competing Country Music Association artist of the year awards, but have yet to breakthrough in Sin City. Jason Aldean, like Lambert a rising star, also is a first-time nominee.

Chesney, who isn’t in Las Vegas because of his tour, will have a large presence at the show nonetheless. The four-time entertainer of the year winner isn’t nominated in that category after taking a year off from touring, but Chesney is up for five awards. He’s vying for his first album of the year award for “Hemingway’s Whiskey” and he’s also up for male vocalist. Lady Antebellum, which took five Grammy awards earlier this year, is up for three ACMs.

Zac Brown of the Zac Brown band is actually the night’s leading nominee, though his nine nominations are split between his band and his work as a producer and a composer, so he doesn’t have as many individual nominations as Lambert.

He said he won’t really be focused on the awards, though. He’ll be performing with James Taylor, his biggest influence.




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