LOS ANGELES — The big competition between Tim McGraw and Faith Hill never amounted to anything Wednesday night at the 35th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards.
In all three categories in which they both had nominations — Album, Song and Entertainer of the Year — they lost to the Dixie Chicks’ Fly, Lonestar’s “Amazed,” and Shania Twain, respectively.
Twain was named Entertainer of the Year, following her win in that category from the Country Music Association in September. Dolly Parton, who hosted the three-hour event, accepted the award on Twain’s behalf noting “Shania couldn’t be here tonight, she’s out of the country. We accept this award on her behalf. Maybe I can take it to her and meet her,” referring to last fall’s CMA awards show when Twain voiced her wish to meet Parton, one of her musical idols.
As the night drew to a close, Hill and McGraw had begun to look unstoppable. First, McGraw marched to the podium as Top Male Vocalist, receiving a standing ovation from the audience at the Universal Amphitheatre. A few minutes later, Hill was named Top Female Vocalist. Both were repeat awards for the couple. McGraw and Hill thanked their fans, each other and their children.
Hill also registered a victory for Top Country Video for the somewhat racy “Breathe.” The prize was her third consecutive in the clip category after wins with McGraw for “It’s Your Love” and on her own for “This Kiss.” Director Lili Zanuck joined Hill on stage to accept the award. “These are beautiful this year, by the way,” Hill said of the specially redesigned ACM 2000 trophies.
Parton began the evening with a lusty “Howdee!” recalling country music’s most heralded comedienne. “Minnie Pearl would be proud of us,” she said. She went on to say that her philosophy for outfitting herself for the evening included “a dash of flash, a dash of trash and spend the cash to make a splash.”
Double winners the Dixie Chicks won the first award of the evening, Top Vocal Duo/Group, a repeat for them in the category. Buck Owens, a patriarch of the West Coast country scene and a key player in the Academy of Country Music, stood and congratulated the group as they made their way to the stage. Among the group’s thank-you’s, primary Chicks’ singer Natalie Maines named “my lovely date tonight, Ralph [her bulldog], but Adrian — let me tell you, you’re a much better date, please be here next time.” She referred to current flame Adrian Pasdar, an actor she met at Emily Robison’s wedding.
“Them Dixie Chicks are just clucking right along, ain’t they?” Dolly Parton asked midway into the show. The group also took Album of the Year honors for their Grammy-winning album, Fly, repeating last year’s victory in the category. Accepting, Martie Seidel said, “When you make an album, you have no clue how it’s going to turn out — we just lock the door, the five of us, the producers and ourselves. We try to write the best songs and choose the best songs, and thank God, Nashville has some of the best songwriters. We’re just so proud to have already won two awards, the Grammy and this one, for an album we are so proud of.”
Though the Chicks appear on the Ride With Bob album singing “Roly Poly” with Asleep at the Wheel, they did not perform with Ray Benson and his western swing group. About to embark on their first headlining tour, the Chicks opted to sit out this year’s show as performers. In lead singer Natalie Maines’ place, 11-year-old Billy Gilman, about to release his debut album, joined Benson. The Universal audience was on its feet quickly after Gilman’s performance with the Wheel.
Brad Paisley, nominated for four awards, won the one for which he was a shoo-in, Top New Male Vocalist. “I want to thank, first of all, God for more blessings than I deserve,” said the West Virginian. A staunch traditionalist who appears frequently on the Grand Ole Opry, he added, “I’m honored to say that [country radio] is the only place I ever want to be played, folks.”
Husband/wife writing duo Aimee Mayo and Chris Lindsey and creative partner Marv Green took Song of the Year for Lonestar’s hit, “Amazed,” defeating a strong field of contenders that included songs performed by Hill, McGraw, Jones and Paisley. Mayo thanked a long list of people then leaped into the air with delight. Lonestar came to the stage but did not speak.
When Lonestar came back to accept Single of the Year for “Amazed,” singer Richie McDonald thanked the writers, saying “without your inspiration for this song we couldn’t be up here and we can’t thank you enough.” The single spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard country singles chart. A pop remix of the song went to No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart earlier this year.
Top Vocal Event went to Clint Black and his wife, Lisa Hartman Black, for “When I Said I Do,” a song Mr. Black wrote in the couple’s kitchen. When Black first proposed that his wife join him in a duet, Hartman Black resisted, though she has issued pop recordings in the past. She spoke first as the couple accepted their award. “I want to thank everyone on the planet who made me feel welcome, all the fans, you’ll never know how great you made me feel, and everyone at country radio and my gorgeous husband for writing such a beautiful song and including me,” she said. Black has not won an ACM award since 1990 when he won four including Top New Male Vocalist and Top Male Vocalist.
This is only the third year that the Academy of Country Music has given a vocal event award. McGraw and Hill won the honor the two previous years. The award may not be the last for the Blacks. “I’ve already written another song for her to sing,” Mr. Black said, “and I think this is going to help get her into the studio.”
Hill and McGraw debuted a new video for “Let’s Make Love,” a duet that appears on Hill’s album, Breathe. The clip features scenes from Paris including the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe.
Jessica Andrews, named Top New Female Vocalist, appeared both tearful and nervous as she accepted her award. “Lots of things were going through my mind. I really can’t wait to see it back on TV later on,” she said backstage in the press room. “Winning this means so much to me. No matter how many awards I win or if I don’t win any awards, I just want to continue making great music, that’s what it’s all about.”
When she takes the stage in the future, her introduction will have a new wrinkle. “That’s when it’ll sink in, when I’m introduced as the Top New Female Vocalist [on stage],” she said.
Country duo Montgomery Gentry — Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry — were about to pop when they picked up their trophy for Top New Vocal Duo/Group. “When Eddie and I started back in the honky tonks of Kentucky 14 years ago, we never knew where our music was going to bring us,” Gentry said.
Backstage, Gentry said the duo hasn’t forgotten the small places where they got their start. “Every now and then,” he said, “we go back home and play some of the clubs we played through coming up.”
George Strait and Alan Jackson teamed up to open the show with “Murder on Music Row.” The song bemoans the erosion of traditional country music values that include the use of fiddles and steel guitars. The two recorded the song for George Strait’s recent greatest hits collection.
Jackson, who figuratively tipped his hat to George Jones at last year’s Country Music Awards by performing a snippet of Jones’ “Choices,” introduced Jones for a full performance of the song on Wednesday night’s ACM awards. Jones nodded back, singing a few bars of “Pop a Top,” the song Jackson performed on the CMA awards, before moving into his performance.
Later, Jackson and Hank Williams Jr. performed Williams’ “The Blues Man,” a song Jackson has said is his favorite from last year’s collection of classic country covers, Under the Influence. Williams appeared to relish his moment on stage with Jackson.