The Dixie Chicks and Lee Ann Womack claimed top honors Wednesday night with three awards each, but the emotional peak came when Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell accepted career-honoring awards.
Grinning on stage, Rogers thanked his wife Wanda, who beamed back at him from the audience. Â"Wanda was with me when nobody cared,Â" he told the crowd. Â"That was a long time, wasn't it?Â"
Dubbed the Career Achievement Award, Rogers' honor recognizes a country performer who has returned to popularity after falling out of favor. It has been presented only three times in the show's 36-year history.
Backstage, Rogers said his career Â"flatlinedÂ" for many years because he failed to push his music to new frontiers.
Â"Most of the guys who are running radio stations now weren't even born when I had my last hit,Â" he said. That changed this year with his hit Â"Buy Me a Rose,Â" the 22nd No. 1 single of his career.
Mandrell took home the surprise Pioneer Award, which recognizes an artist who has expanded the boundaries of country music.
Mandrell, who has retired from performing to spend time with her children, said the award made her miss the stage, but showed her influence was not forgotten.
Â"I don't cry very much from sadness but I cry from joy,Â" an emotional Mandrell said backstage.
Even chart-topping musicians Toby Keith, who won best album and male vocalist, and Brooks & Dunn, who won best duo, said their awards mark a renewed energy and signified their return to top form.
Â"We had a definite dip,Â" Ronnie Dunn said backstage, referring to the duo's 1999 album Â"Tight Rope,Â" which failed to live up to their past hits.
Kix Brooks said they are more happy with their recent album, Â"Steers and Stripes,Â" adding that the award validates their efforts.
Â"You've got to find a way to do something different after 10 years,Â" Brooks said. Â"We really tried to pull that off this year, and people seemed to like it.Â"
Keith had never received an Academy of Country Music Awards honor during his nearly nine-year career. He said the awards for his work on the album Â"How Do You Like Me Now?!Â" make up for troubled recent years, when he was dropped from the Mercury Records label.
Keith is now with DreamWorks Nashville, which released his recent album.
Â"Brooks & Dunn said they had a dip. Well, I had an eight-year skid,Â" he said backstage. Â"I don't know if the theme of country music is the underdog, but at least it allows the sun to shine on a different dog's (rear end) once in a while.Â"
Martie Seidel of the Dixie Chicks, which took home honors for entertainer of the year, top vocal group and best video, said such words gave her pause.
Â"Just when I thought (the awards) were going to stop tonight, they didn't,Â" she said. Â"But I'm preparing for the day when they do.Â"
The night's honors marked a career total of seven awards fothe all-women band.
Even the 18-year-old host, LeAnn Rimes, joined the comeback theme.
Rimes, who was 13 in 1996 when she scored the hit Â"Blue,Â" is currently involved in lawsuits against her father and record company over a contract she signed as a minor.
The singer mocked her legal woes and recent tabloid headlines with a parody of Rogers' broken-heart hit Â"Lucille.Â"
Â"They say she's dyslexic, that she's anorexic, that she's gone and run off with a fan,Â" Rimes sang. Â"Tell me what's going on with LeAnn.Â"
Womack won for best single, song and vocal event for Â"I Hope You Dance,Â" which she performed with the neo-country band Sons of the Desert.
Winners were selected by nearly 3,000 voting members of the Academy of Country Music.
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