With banjo, guitar, a fiddle and a fierce determination to do things their own way, the Dixie Chicks laid claim Wednesday night to being the new queens of country music.
The trio from Texas picked up four awards including Entertainer of the Year at the 34th Annual CMA Awards, held at the Grand Ole Opry House and telecast by CBS. Tim McGraw was named Male Vocalist of the Year and his wife, Faith Hill, was named Female Vocalist of the Year.
The Chicks’ second album, Fly, winner of Album of the Year, has sold more than 6 million copies and earlier this year won a Grammy and the Academy of Country Music’s Album of the Year honor.
“I guess the ‘sophomore jinx’ didn’t happen to us, and I’m really thankful for that,” fiddler and vocalist Martie Seidel said from the stage. “I’m so proud of this album and this is as great as a Grammy, I just want the CMA board to know that.”
Accepting the award for Vocal Group of the Year, their third in that category, Dixie Chick Emily Robison said the trio considers itself a band, in partnership with the musicians who support them on the road.
The Chicks also racked up the first award of the night, Music Video of the Year, for “Goodbye Earl.” Lead singer Maines thanked the director, Evan Bernard (who also earned a trophy), and radio stations that played the controversial song “because we know some of you didn’t,” she said.
“It’s a funny song and a funny video about a very serious, serious topic that does affect a lot of women, and a lot of women die at the hands of their husbands — hundreds every year. So we’re glad that we got this song out there.”
Not shy about creating a little mischief, the Chicks performed “Sin Wagon,” another standard-busting tune, on a red-lit set, complete with mock flames — on stage and screen — and a silhouette of ol’ Beelzebub himself in the background. Maines had quite the dramatic presentation as she sang, dressed in red and lit from below.
“We’re doing pretty good,” host Vince Gill said, grinning, after their performance. “We can talk about ‘mattress dancing’ in country music. I love it!”
Husband and wife Tim McGraw and Faith Hill made the evening a family affair by pulling off an unprecedented double victory. McGraw repeated as Male Vocalist of the Year; Hill took her first Female Vocalist of the Year honor. No other couple has ever won those awards in the same year.
When he picked up his honor, McGraw thanked Hill. “I know you guys are getting tired of hearing me say this, but you’re going to hear it for the next 50 or 60 years: to my soulmate, my wife, who is my inspiration, who I couldn’t do anything without, I love you.”
For her part, Hill professed surprise at her victory, and she seemed to respond to those who have criticized her for her pop success. “I must say this,” she said. “Everyone has questioned where I’m at and what I’m doing, and I tell you something, I love this business and I love this industry and I love the people in this business and my heart is here.”
During the show, both performed new songs. McGraw did “Things Change,” a tune that seemed to answer the criticisms – summarized by the song “Murder on Music Row” – of entrenched traditionalists. The song pointed to Hank Williams Sr., Elvis Presley and country’s outlaw movement as evidence that change can produce good things. “Some say it’s too country/Some say it’s too rock ‘n’ roll,” McGraw sang in the final verse. “It’s just good music, if you can feel it in your soul/And it doesn’t really matter/It’s always been the same/Life goes on, things change.”
Hill opened the night with “There Will Come a Day,” a new, gospel-oriented number. She performed with Tyrone Tribett II & the Greater Anointing Choir, who accented the soulful sway of the selection with their dancing and singing.
“I Hope You Dance” earned both Single and Song of the Year. Lee Ann Womack thanked Sons of the Desert, who backed her on the song, and her producer, Mark Wright, who shared the award with her.
She performed the song, with Sons of the Desert, on a set that reflected the elegance of the song’s video. Four dancers from the Nashville Ballet moved around a Maypole positioned at center stage. In the final bars of the song, a younger dancer joined them, echoing the performance of Womack’s daughters in the video clip.
Writers Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers earned a standing ovation when they accepted Song of the Year honors for the song. Sillers bubbled with excitement and emotion at the victory. Sanders provided a steady hand, an occasional translation and a cutoff line. Both thanked their families.
“It’s a great feeling to have such a positive song that’s affected so many people,” said Sanders during the backstage press conference. “Blue Clear Sky” and “Heads Carolina, Tails California” are among his past hits. “To me, it just feels like a gift. It’s been a wonderful ride for me. I’ve had a lot of hits through the years, but they’ve always been sort of clever and this and that, and this one just kind of came in.”
Alan Jackson and George Strait won Vocal Event of the Year for their recording of “Murder on Music Row,” a song that created its own controversy by taking aim at trends in the contemporary country music business. Strait seemed genuinely amused at the victory as he made his way to the stage to join Jackson in accepting the award. The Opry House audience stood in appreciation of the achievement.
“This song, I don’t know how seriously this song was written, but it was done kind of as a joke,” Strait said. “I guess it just proves we don’t know what the heck we’re doing up here, anyway.” Jackson thanked the song’s writers, Larry Cordle and Larry Shell.
Brad Paisley, a West Virginian, received the Horizon Award from Ricky Skaggs and John Michael Montgomery, both from Kentucky and both former Horizon Award winners. Montgomery’s brother, Eddie Montgomery of Montgomery Gentry, was a Horizon nominee. Skaggs joined Paisley for “Me Neither,” the second half of a medley that also included “We Danced.”
“I love country music and I’ve always loved it … I can’t say enough about being included in this evening,” Paisley said. He went on to thank country music fans. “Nashville has its own ideas about what country music is, but the people who really know are you,” he said. “Tell us what you think of what we’re doing and come to our shows and, more than anything, support it.”
Though they lost to Paisley for Horizon Award, country duo Montgomery Gentry — Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry — did pick up the award for Vocal Duo of the Year, ending Brooks & Dunn’s unprecedented eight-year CMA victory streak. The pair performed a rousing “All Night Long” with country-rock forefather Charlie Daniels, one of the co-writers of the song.
“I want to thank Brooks & Dunn,” Gentry said on stage. “Thank you for letting us be a part of your team this past year. I want to thank The Judds and go back to George [Jones] and Tammy [Wynette] and all the great legendaries for letting us be a part of this tradition.”
At the press conference, Gentry continued to pay tribute to Brooks & Dunn. “I don’t think we knocked anybody off,” he said, “we’ve just taken a step up to their level.”
Session veteran Hargus “Pig” Robbins won Musician of the Year. He also won the award in 1976 and is the only pianist ever to win the award.
Charley Pride and Faron Young joined the Country Music Hall of Fame. Merle Haggard was on hand for Pride’s induction.
Reba McEntire received the CMA International Achievement Award, for “contributing to the awareness and development of country music outside North America.” Presenter Trisha Yearwood, a former recipient, cited McEntire’s efforts to introduce country to other parts of the world during the past year by touring “several continents, including Europe, where she headlined the BBC’s Country Festival at Easter.” In her trademark, big-production style, McEntire performed “We’re So Good Together” with support from a troupe of flashily clad young dancers.
Victories reflected a broad range of approaches to modern country music, from the ultra-traditional Jackson-Strait duet on “Murder on Music Row” to the more contemporary work of Faith Hill.
Young Paisley spoke with passion and frankness about the issue.
“This town doesn’t have a clue. They like to think they know what sells records. Any record executive in town would tell you they’re not sure, and I think we need to quit worrying about that,” he said.
“What we need to worry about is [songs] like ‘I Hope You Dance,’” he continued. “It was written because that’s how the writers felt … These are the songs that should win Song of the Year. That’s where our future lies. Like Tim McGraw said in that song, it needs to have the heart. He talks about ‘Some say it’s too country/Some say it’s too rock ‘n’ roll.’ It needs to have the heart. That’s the key.”