What to Look For in the CMA Awards

Annual Country Extravaganza Features Gill and a Flock of Stars

Are you expecting great things from Wednesday night’s (Nov. 5) CMA Awards Show? Then you shall have them. The three-hour egothon from Nashville has a way of living up to everyone’s expectations. For the congenitally eager and pure of heart, there are sure to be praiseworthy — even life transforming — moments. After all, you’ve got giants like Alan Jackson, George Strait, Patty Loveless and Tim McGraw performing. But jaded naysayers and purists can be just as sure that the spectacle will offer them even more evidence that country music is going to hell in a hand basket. What, they ask, do Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones have to do with country? Or Rascal Flatts, for that matter? And how can anyone take the entertainer of the year category seriously when the arena-packing Dixie Chicks have been excluded from it?

The Great Unifier in this ugly tug between preservation and apostasy is perennial host Vince Gill, whose traditional country heart is cloaked in an urbane wit. He is that rarest of creatures — one who can prick your pretensions while he’s patting you on the back. He doesn’t rely on the cue cards to tell him what’s funny, either. If a renegade solar flare should plunge the Opry House into total darkness during the show, his will be the voice that keeps the crowd chuckling as it gropes for the exits.

The Dixie Chicks are such an automatic (if increasingly uneasy) chuckle, that someone is almost certain to try to get a laugh at their expense. But it’s more likely that the jibe will be about their much-publicized farewell to country music than their anti-Bush sentiments. Given the grim circumstances of the war in Iraq, don’t look for a lot of scripted flag-waving. There was none of it at the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremonies Sunday (Nov. 2) that opened Country Music Week.

The Johnny Cash tribute, which seems to have grown into a special within a special, will likely overshadow the segment in which Carl Smith and the late Floyd Cramer are inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Cramer’s and Smith’s heydays were so long ago — the former last charted in 1980, the latter in 1978 — that only avid country fans know much about them. That being the case, it bears noting here that Smith was married to June Carter before Cash was and that Carlene Carter is his daughter.

The resurgence of interest in Cash, on which the CMA tribute capitalizes, can either warm your heart or jump-start your cynicism. From the late 1980s until the mid ’90s, Cash was the Music Row equivalent of day-old bread. Now it appears that everyone loved him all along but just didn’t get around to saying so until lately. Fortunately, Cash lived long enough to feel the love or what passes for it. In the early ’80s, there was a similar beatification of Lefty Frizzell, who, alas, died too early to enjoy the revival.

Quite properly, the CMA Awards are about what’s happening in country music now. But it’s going to be kind of strange seeing such former big-time winners as Randy Travis, Wynonna, Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes and George Jones reduced this year to the role of presenter.

Apart from the artificial and short-lived excitement about who does and doesn’t win a particular award, we’ll all be waiting and hoping for those moments of authentic excitement when an artist we hadn’t paid much attention to sweeps us away or a song we hadn’t heard before instantly becomes our favorite. Believe it or not, those moments happen regularly on the CMAs. Remember when a relatively obscure Mary Chapin Carpenter had us falling out of our seats with her tongue-in-cheek lament, “Opening Act”? Or a few years later, when she neared the end of her performance of “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and Little Richard came out on the stage to command her to shut up and kiss him — and she did? And what about that time in 1991 when Garth Brooks stood nervously on stage, clutching his first entertainer of the year trophy? Gazing into the audience, he said humbly, “I love my Georges — George Strait and George Jones.” Then, with masterful timing, he glanced at the elder George Bush seated a few rows back from the stage and mumbled, “No offense, Mr. President.” The crowd roared, and we onlookers had something to tell our kids about.

So watch with an open mind. You can always close it later.

Have you forgotten? The award categories and nominees are: entertainer: Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw; female vocalist: Terri Clark, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Dolly Parton; male vocalist: Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, George Strait; vocal group: Alabama, Diamond Rio, Dixie Chicks, Lonestar, Rascal Flatts; vocal duo: Bellamy Brothers, Brooks & Dunn, Montgomery Gentry, Sons of the Desert, Warren Brothers; album: American IV: The Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash; Home, Dixie Chicks; Man With a Memory, Joe Nichols; Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors, Tim McGraw; Unleashed, Toby Keith; song: “Beer for My Horses,” Toby Keith, Scotty Emerick; “Celebrity,” Brad Paisley; “Have You Forgotten?” Darryl Worley, Wynn Varble; “Red Dirt Road,” Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn; “Three Wooden Crosses,” Doug Johnson, Kim Williams.

Single: “Beer for My Horses,” Toby Keith, Willie Nelson; “Celebrity,” Brad Paisley; “Have You Forgotten?” Darryl Worley; “Hurt,” Johnny Cash; “Three Wooden Crosses,” Randy Travis; Horizon award: Gary Allan, Buddy Jewell, Joe Nichols, Blake Shelton, Darryl Worley; vocal event: “Beer for My Horses,” Toby Keith, Willie Nelson; “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” Alan Jackson, Jimmy Buffett; “Picture,” Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow; “Tears in the Holston River,” Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Johnny Cash; “The Truth About Men,” Tracy Byrd, Andy Griggs, Montgomery Gentry, Blake Shelton; music video: “Beer for My Horses,” Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, directed by Michael Salomon; “Celebrity,” Brad Paisley, directed by Peter Zavadil; “Concrete Angel,” Martina McBride, directed by Robert Deaton, George J. Flanigen IV; “Hurt,” Johnny Cash, directed by Mark Romanek; “Red Dirt Road,” Brooks & Dunn, directed by Steven Goldmann; musician: Jerry Douglas (Dobro), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Aubrie Haynie (fiddle, mandolin), Brent Mason (guitar), Randy Scruggs (guitar).