Tradition-oriented upsets charged the atmosphere, and current events set the tone for stirring performances during the biggest night of the year for country music, The 35th Annual CMA Awards, held Wednesday (Nov. 7) at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.
Tim McGraw ’s victory for entertainer of the year was perhaps the most predictable outcome of the night. His 2001 tour grossed $25 million and drew 650,000 people, tops in country.
McGraw himself was surprised, however. “I never thought this could happen to me,” he said. “I thought that I would make a few records and maybe have few hits, maybe be able to stick around long enough to enjoy myself for a little while, but I never thought that I would enjoy myself this much.”
In the night’s most shocking development, “Murder on Music Row,” an indictment of country music’s move away from a traditional sound incorporating steel guitar and fiddle, was named song of the year. The song also was nominated last year, but lost to “I Hope You Dance,” though the Alan Jackson /George Strait collaboration on the song did win vocal event of the year.
“We’re a big family of country music, and there’s all kinds of people in a family,” said co-writer Larry Shell. “Sometimes we argue and all that, but when it comes right down to it, we all pull together. … ‘Murder on Music Row’ has been a real inspiration to us and a lot of country fans, traditional country fans.”
CMA voters seemed eager to make a statement about traditional country music. “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” an old-time country tune revived for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was named single of the year, and the O Brother soundtrack, the year’s top-selling country album, was named album of the year. Record company officials said the roots music set, which also features blues and gospel music, has just gone triple platinum, for shipments of 3 million copies.
“Too Country,” by Brad Paisley , Bill Anderson , George Jones and Buck Owens , was named vocal event of the year, and Lee Ann Womack , who leans toward a traditional country sound, was named female vocalist of the year. (Listen to Womack backstage at the 2001 CMAs.)
Backstage, Jones trumpeted the trend. “You know how hardcore I am,” he said. “Everybody knows I’m hardcore. I think traditional country music should be what real country music is. I’m not talking about the cornball stuff, I’m talking about good, traditional country music. We need to get back to basics.”
Anderson, who wrote the song with Chuck Cannon, was more conciliatory. “I think country music is a lot like a rainbow,” he said. “I think it’s got a lot of different colors, and I’m just glad this is one of those colors.”
Brooks & Dunn , winners for vocal duo of the year, opened the three-hour broadcast on CBS the same way they opened their concerts this summer, with a Jimi Hendrix-inspired portion of the “Star-Spangled Banner” on electric guitar, followed by their chart-topping single, “Only in America,” a rousing celebration of American culture and values.
The duo altered one verse: “Some men they dream of fame and fortune, some work hard to pay the rent/Some give their lives to save our freedom, heroes that we never will forget.” Both used red, white and blue guitars.
“We really need all the red, white and blue we can get these days,” said 10-time CMA host Vince Gill . “And I really believe that in times like these we need music more than we ever have. It’s always been such a huge part of our American heritage. Throughout history, music has always lifted our spirits in times of struggle.”
Jackson performed a newly written song, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” with the words, “I’m just a singer of simple songs, I’m not a real political man/I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran/But I know Jesus and I talk to God and I remember this from when I was young/Faith, hope and love are some good things he gave us, and the greatest is love.”
The show closed with a group-sing, led by Gill, of “America the Beautiful,” in front of a massive American flag. Some of the singers in the audience made their way to the stage to join those already assembled.
The victory by “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” made CMA history. Every other nominee in the category was a No. 1 hit, while “Man of Constant Sorrow” stalled at No. 48 because country radio stations balked at playing it. No single has ever won the award without registering in the Top 40 on the country chart. The video, incorporating footage from the movie, received heavy airplay on CMT, and the song was the centerpiece for the best-selling album.
Dan Tyminski, as lead vocalist for The Soggy Bottom Boys, is the singing voice for the movie’s star, George Clooney. “No way this just happened,” Tyminski said. “I suppose I should thank ah, George Clooney, for one.”
Host Gill cheered the victory. “That’s awesome,” he said. “Hey, George Clooney, I’ve met Dan Tyminski and you’re no Dan Tyminski.”
Womack, whose recording of “I Hope You Dance” was named single and song of the year at last year’s CMA awards, was emotional as she accepted the female vocalist trophy. “I thought my chance had gone by me and so I’m very, very grateful to have this,” she said. “I can remember watching the awards every fall, when I was growing up, and this is what I wanted.”
Lonestar , source for one of the No. 1 hits trumped by “Man of Constant Sorrow,” was named vocal group of the year. Vocalist Richie McDonald took care to thank the members’ families. “The song ‘I’m Already There,’ that explains it. That’s the life that we live every night.” (Listen to Lonestar backstage at the 2001 CMAs.)
Guitarist and producer Dann Huff (Lonestar, SHeDAISY ), a former rock artist, was named musician of the year.
Toby Keith won male vocalist of the year, his first CMA victory in a recording career that began over eight years ago. “What we gonna do now?” he asked from the stage. “I think it’s cool that we can get together here tonight and live in a free nation and do this thing, because every time we get together and celebrate our accomplishments, we kick the evil right in the teeth.” (Listen to Keith backstage at the 2001 CMAs.)
Keith Urban took the year’s Horizon Award. “What do you know? Prayers do work,” said the Australian-bred singer, songwriter and guitarist. “Thank you God, I appreciate this so much. I prayed so much for this.” (Listen to Urban backstage at the 2001 CMAs.)
The Dixie Chicks , last year’s entertainers of the year, went home without a trophy this year. They did turn in a stirring acoustic performance of “Travelin’ Soldier,” about a young girl who waits hopefully for a soldier to return from Vietnam.
McGraw had the military on his mind, too, sending wishes to “you guys out there taking care of us, over in God-forsaken land over there. We appreciate it.”