It was the year of country music's breakthrough--skyrocketing record sales, network TV shows, Time magazine cover story. But on country music's second-biggest night (Nashville's Country Music Assn. Awards still rule), Wednesday's nationally televised Academy of Country Music Awards show from the Universal Amphitheatre wasn't even seen in its host city, and the movement's messiah, Garth Brooks, publicly mulled retirement.
KNBC Channel 4 joined most other local stations in preempting scheduled programming--including the two-hour ACM show--to cover the disturbances following the Rodney G. King beating verdict. Some television camera crews were even summoned out of the backstage press area during the program to cover the harder news. (KNBC has rescheduled the show for Sunday at midnight.)
What Los Angeles country fans missed was a crack in the armor of Brooks, whose three albums have sold in the area of 16 million copies and who last year picked up six awards from the Los Angeles-based academy. This year he was nominated for five, but took just two: male vocalist and entertainer of the year.
In the press tent, Brooks displayed the combination of calculation and condor that make him such a compelling performer. He had his humble moments ("I think tonight showed that I'm not the cause (of country's success). I feel lucky to be part of it"), and he praised the competition, but he also seemed disturbed by the outcome of the awards. "Now I've got to go back and look and . . . bear down. Maybe we sat back and maybe we didn't do something we should have, so now it's time to go to work."
Or maybe not.
When he was asked about his future, Brooks stood with his wife, Sandy, whose pregnancy has been threatened by miscarriage, and let it drop.
"To tell you the truth, I was thinkin' about quittin' because of this right here," said the singer, indicating the future Taylor Maine Brooks, who's due in July. "I don't know yet, this thing is really throwin' me for a loop, because I don't know how the hell to take this thing, I really don't. Kids deserve a lot of attention, so I think I'll be around for her."
A Brooks representative said Thursday that while the singer is not likely to completely retire, he might cut back his activities to accommodate parenthood.
If there is a void at the top, Wednesday's ACM Awards offered several new faces, including Jackson, Diamond Rio, Brooks & Dunn and Billy Dean. But they all faded into blandness next to Willie Nelson, who observed his 59th birthday by accepting the career-honoring Pioneer Award from his longtime buddy Kris Kristofferson.
In a moving tribute during the program, Kristofferson called Nelson "a carved-in-granite samurai poet warrior Gypsy guitar-pickin' wild man with a heart as big as Texas and the greatest sense of humor in the West."
Backstage, Kristofferson elaborated on the original outlaw's role in an earlier country-music revolution.
"For a whole group of us who were a kind of underground of as yet uncommercial songwriters, our standard-bearer was Willie Nelson. . . . We used to point to him as an example of why writing country songs was a worthwhile activity."