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Country Awards Get Classic Twang

The CMA tips its hat to the past from its temporary perch in New York City, favoring more traditional music over pop-friendly tunes.

November 16, 2005|Randy Lewis and Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — Nashville's Country Music Assn. headed to the Big Apple for its 39th annual awards ceremony Tuesday, but went back to musical basics with key awards going to tradition-minded artists and recordings.

For much of the last decade, the country establishment championed efforts to broaden the music's appeal to pop audiences in the wake of multimillion-selling successes by such performers as Shania Twain and Faith Hill.

But with sales of country records now lagging 10% behind this time a year ago, and criticism in many corners that the emphasis on pop-leaning music has alienated many core country fans, CMA voters appeared to place their bets for the future on the past, repeatedly rewarding time-tested country sounds.

Lee Ann Womack's retro "There's More Where That Came From" was named album of the year over less traditional efforts in the category by Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts.

Womack also won single of the year for "I May Hate Myself in the Morning," an exercise in bad choices in love in the Loretta Lynn-Tammy Wynette mold. Bill Anderson and Jon Randall's equally classic-sounding "Whiskey Lullaby," a stark portrait of the damage wreaked by alcoholism, was named song of the year.

Against a silhouetted backdrop of the Manhattan skyline, Tuesday's show capped a week of country music performances and promotions dubbed "Country Takes NYC," in a city that is the nation's No. 1 music market but has no country music radio station.

The show aimed for cultural commonality in segments such as one pairing Willie Nelson singing a snippet of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" followed by the New Yorker strumming Nelson's "Crazy" while fitfully duetting with the pony-tailed Texas composer. Most performances cried with steel guitars, sighed with fiddles and occasionally bounced with banjos.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg joined in, trundling on stage to say: "We're so excited that country music, a great art form, has found a welcoming home in America's greatest town."

In presenting New York as a country-music friendly region, the CMA cites statistics showing that New Yorkers have bought about 1.3 million country albums so far this year, accounting for 2.5% of country sales nationwide, second only to the Los Angeles-Orange County area's 1.4 million in sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The subtext of Nashville lobbying for a country radio station in New York City surfaced early. When Womack, whose father was a country radio disc jockey, collected one of her three CMA trophies Tuesday, she used her acceptance speech to tell the television audience: "You people out there, if you are listening to music that doesn't touch you, doesn't mean anything to you, tune into country radio. We have songs about your life, songs that you will love, songs that speak to your heart."

The virtues of vintage country music ran throughout the three-hour CBS telecast, from Martina McBride singing Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" to Alan Jackson offering his take on Eric Clapton's countrified ballad "Wonderful Tonight" to Garth Brooks briefly coming out of his self-imposed retirement to sing his tribute to cowboy singer Chris LeDoux, who died of cancer in March.

One exception to the rootsy focus was Dolly Parton's duet with Elton John on John Lennon's "Imagine."

The show's hosts, Brooks & Dunn, beat the upstart Big & Rich for duo of the year honors. The loss for the leaders of Nashville's so-called Muzik Mafia, a conglomeration of boundary-testing performers also including Gretchen Wilson, was partly offset by Wilson's winning the female vocalist award. Her breakthrough hit "Redneck Woman" helped bring a blue-collar ethic back to the top of the country charts last year.

Australian singer-songwriter Urban became the second non-U.S.-born performer, after Canadian Shania Twain in 1999, to win the CMA's top award, entertainer of the year. He also won a second trophy for male vocalist, cementing his reputation as one of country music's most promising new figures.

Awards are voted on by CMA members, who include record executives, radio programmers, musicians and writers. Records released from July 1, 2004, to June 30, 2005, were eligible.

The first staging of the CMA Awards in Madison Square Garden came a day after country music's year-round showcase, the Grand Ole Opry, took place in Carnegie Hall for the first time since 1961.

There was no joking this time, however, about how much hay would fit in the nation's most famous concert hall, as Ernest Tubb was said to have quipped back then.

Singer Trisha Yearwood, who wore a dress worthy of an opera diva while performing her rollicking first hit, "She's in Love With the Boy," told the Carnegie Hall crowd: "I've never sung that song in a ball gown before."

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Paul Lieberman reported from New York and Randy Lewis from Los Angeles.

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