The people have spoken. And they spoke louder than Kenny Chesney, at least in terms of the ratings.
Chesney and his fellow Nashville stars return Sunday for the Academy of Country Music Awards' third year at the MGM Grand Garden and seventh overall in Las Vegas.
Last year, Chesney's enthusiasm for winning Entertainer of the Year for the fourth time was tempered by the category's being put up to a vote by the fans.
"I think it's a complete disrespect to the artist," Chesney said in the press room after the show. "You don't stand up here because you pushed somebody's button on the Internet, you earn it. I think we need to be careful how we give this award away in the future."
But last year's awards on CBS saw a 26 percent ratings upswing. No one thing explains it, and it could be "the love of country music across the board is amazingly high," says producer Orly Adelson of Dick Clark Productions.
But this year brings more fan voting, not less. Chesney again will be submitted to public approval for Entertainer of the Year, and viewers also will settle a new umbrella category for Top New Artist.
"You're engaging the people who are actually your fans. Engaging them in the process will bring them to watch the show, too," Adelson explains. "Ultimately you do those shows for your fans, so why not bring them closer to the show? It's really important to engage the people who support you."
The Academy's president, Bob Romeo, agrees. "I use the word fan and consumer as the same thing. I don't think there's an act out there, including Kenny, that doesn't recognize the importance of the fans," he says. Without them, "we wouldn't have a business. How do you say maybe the fans aren't educated enough?"
But Romeo stresses the Academy's effort to strike a balance between awards such as the Oscars and Grammys that are determined entirely by industry professionals, and the likes of the American Music Awards and others approved by the public or volume of sales.
The nominations still come from within the industry, he says. "Once we've done that job (of nominating worthy acts), ultimately, what is wrong with letting the people vote for that when our whole format is driven by those people?"
One of those nominees, John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band, keeps it all in perspective. "I think I speak for Kenny Chesney and every artist in the world when I say that none of us really get involved in music to compete and to win awards."
The band goes into the running for Top New Artist having already been pre-awarded Top New Vocal Duo or Group. "We certainly are very appreciative and excited about the opportunity to take home the ACM," he says, but adds, "I think music is probably a bigger thing than a competition."
This year's awards also bring new rules for the Album of the Year award, after the shift to music downloads challenged the wisdom of requiring a nominee to sell 300,000 actual CD copies.
"We had some great nominees (but) not enough of them made that benchmark," Romeo says. The change brought a "knee-jerk reaction" and accusations of "Your business is in trouble. You couldn't even get 20 albums."
But the real explanation is that "a format that seemed to be more album driven is now becoming more singles driven," he says. "History always repeats itself."
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.