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A Diluted Genre SalutesIts Roots : Country music: Naming of Merle Haggard to the Hall of Fame is the highlight of awards show.


There are roots and then there are roots .

On a night when a collection of songs by a '70s Los Angeles rock band won the Country Music Assn.'s album of the year award, the real deal at Wednesday's ceremonies in Nashville came with naming Merle Haggard to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Country's popularity boom of the past few years has been attributed in part to the arrival of a generation of artists who grew up with pop and rock as well as country influences. But the danger is a dilution of the country essence embodied by veterans such as Haggard.

Nashville likes to banner its enduring links to its pioneers, but it doesn't mean much at a time when careers are powered by video productions and radio-ready records. It's a sad fact that Haggard--who at 57 is still doing work at least as vital and significant as the next Confederate Railroad single--can't get airplay as well as accolades.

Emmylou Harris' dignified and eloquent exposition of Haggard's life and music was the highlight of the nationally televised show, which offered little in the way of drama or upsets.

Vince Gill, the evening's host, unassumingly accepted the male vocalist and entertainer of the year honors--both were virtually foregone conclusions. Pam Tillis' win as female vocalist was the closest thing to a surprise.

It was the year of the Big Event Record in an oddball album field. The winning "Common Thread," a set of Eagles songs performed reverently but timidly by some of country's top names, competed with Asleep at the Wheel's salute to Texas swing legend Bob Wills and the all-star, soul-country hybrid, "Rhythm, Country & Blues."

Alan Jackson and George Strait were also in there, but those special projects left these 28th annual CMA awards slightly inconclusive about the stature of today's key artists.

In the corporate contest behind the performers, though, Arista Records' country division and its chief Tim DuBois--considered the second-most powerful executive in Nashville to MCA's Tony Brown--made an assertive move with the wins by Tillis, Brooks & Dunn (best duo), Diamond Rio (group) and Alan Jackson (with Jim McBride for "Chattahoochee" as song of the year).

The other winners:

Single: "I Swear," John Michael Montgomery and producer Scott Hendricks; vocal event: Reba McEntire and Linda Davis' "Does He Love You"; musician: Mark O'Connor; video: "Independence Day," Martina McBride and directors Deaton/Flanigen/Andy Singer; Horizon Award: John Michael Montgomery.

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