Toby Keith’s seven nominations translated into zero wins as he was shut out by CMA voters at the 37th annual CMA Awards held in Nashville on Wednesday (Nov. 5). The late Johnny Cash and Alan Jackson took three awards each, including Jackson’s entertainer of the year trophy, for which Keith had been heavily favored.
With four nominations, Cash won for album, single and music video of the year and led a traditional country resurgence. The lone pop-leaning award winners, Rascal Flatts, gave their award to the more traditional group Alabama.
“It’s just pickin’ and singin’ and writin’ songs and that’s what it’s all about,” said the veteran Jackson in accepting the entertainer trophy for the second straight year. He now has 16 career CMA Awards, second only to host Vince Gill’s 18.
The evening’s tone was set by the first two events — a Jackson drinking song and an award going to Johnny Cash. Things were righted in the country music world: the pop tilt had been corrected back toward being solidly country. “We’re honky-tonking again,” Gill reminded the audience.
Johnny Cash’s video of “Hurt” had been a sentimental — as well as artistic — favorite to win music video of the year, and the announcement drew a spontaneous standing ovation. John Carter Cash and his sister Kathy accepted with short but eloquent thanks for their late father and video director Mark Romanek. Just a few minutes later, the Cash children were back onstage to accept the Single award for “Hurt” for their father and producer Rick Rubin. These became Johnny Cash’s seventh and eighth CMA Awards. Cash’s son said, “I’m totally overwhelmed that my father’s heritage lives on. He would be grateful if he were here tonight.” His sister wiped tears from her eyes and could say nothing.
And that opening drinking song — “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” — quickly won for vocal event of the year. For Jackson’s duet partner Jimmy Buffett, it was his first CMA Award — although this was his third nomination. “It was about 31 years ago that I came to this town to pursue my musical madness, said Buffett, “and I’ve never won anything for anything, and it’s great to do it here.”
The traditional country surge continued with the song of the year award. “Three Wooden Crosses” was a gospel song, and gospel songs seldom if ever get country radio play. It was recorded by an artist that many in Nashville regarded as being over the hill. Randy Travis hadn’t seen the Top 10 of Billboard‘s singles country chart in over five years until he recorded “Three Wooden Crosses” and took it to No. 1 earlier this year. Travis was not present, so the award was accepted by songwriters Doug Johnson and Kim Williams. (The award goes to the writers and publishers: Mike Curb Music, Sweet Radical Music, Sony and ATV Tunes.)
Then, when the Carter children trooped back onstage for the album of the year award for American IV: The Man Comes Around, it was obvious that the CMA voters had spoken: they wanted their country back and wanted it simple and honest. That gave Cash his ninth CMA honor.
The argument can be easily made that the group of the year award would have been a lock for the traditional-sounding Dixie Chicks until the Chicks’ “incident,” which guaranteed them a backlash from CMA voters. Instead, pop-leaning Rascal Flatts took the honor. Flatts offered their award to the veteran group Alabama, who are retiring this year. Alabama’s Randy Owen and Mark Herndon climbed the steps to the stage to accept the trophy but appeared reluctant and uncertain and made no remarks to the crowd. Perhaps Rascal Flatts should have done the Garth thing and just left the award on the podium.
The hotly-contested award for male vocalist of the year — voting was so close there were six instead of the usual five nominees — went to Jackson. It was his second year in a row for the award.
The very popular Martina McBride repeated as female vocalist of the year and very diplomatically — and honestly — praised the other nominees in this also tight field (Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless and Terri Clark).
The Horizon Award went to the heavily favored, strongly traditional singer Joe Nichols (who had also been nominated for album of the year — a rarity for a rookie artist).
Vocal duo honors, to no one’s surprise, went to Brooks & Dunn. The award was announced before the show although Gill hauled it out onstage to give to Brooks & Dunn after they performed “You Can’t Take the Honky Tonky Out of the Girl.” It marked the third win in a row in that category for Brooks & Dunn and was also their 13th career award. Randy Scruggs was named musician of the year in ceremonies before the telecast.
Gill carried off his hosting duties for the 12th year in a row with his usual aplomb and wit and diet jokes. And with “ass” jokes about Rascal Flatts’ nude video. After Norah Jones and Parton dueted and drew a deserved ovation, Gill was beside himself with enthusiasm. “Wow!” he said. “Britney and Madonna can kiss all they want. I wanta hear ‘em sing!”
The show also featured filmed tributes to new Country Music Hall of Fame members Carl Smith and the late Floyd Cramer. Smith, who retired from music to run his ranch, was on hand to doff his white cowboy hat to an appreciative audience.
This 37th annual CMA Awards show seemed more music-centric than usual, with 20 separate, full performances — not counting the five-minute tribute to Johnny Cash. And those 20 included full song performances by all five Horizon Award nominees.
The two cross-genre duets had been heavily promoted and paid off handsomely. The first, the Jackson-Buffet hookup on their No. 1 song “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” which was the show opener, kicked things off in a very solid vein. A barefoot, grinning Buffett was clearly ebullient to be playing his first CMA Awards show — unaware that he would shortly be winning his first CMA Award.
The likewise heavily-publicized pairing of alt-jazz princess Jones and country icon Dolly Parton on the latter’s “The Grass Is Blue” was a grand triumph, with Parton’s lilting mountain voice a perfect counterpoint to Jones’ dusky and simmering lower register.
Other musical highlights included McBride’s moving “In My Daughter’s Eyes,” George Strait proving that he can still rock out with “Honk If You Honky Tonk,” Loveless’ bouncy “Lovin’ All Night,” Krauss’ feathery “Every Time You Say Goodbye” and Gill’s bittersweet “Young Man’s Town” (with daughter Jenny lending harmonies).
The Cash tribute was introduced by Gill in giving Cash the CMA Irving Waugh Award (for representing country music worldwide). Gill said, “Nobody ever walked the line like the Man in Black.” Old Cash friend Willie Nelson, wearing his years well, kicked it off with “I Walk the Line,” segueing into Hank Williams Jr. singing “Ring of Fire,” followed by Sheryl Crow and Travis Tritt blending voices for a soulful rendition of “Jackson.”
Fellow Highwayman Kris Kristofferson interpreted “Folsom Prison Blues,” giving way to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and their patented singing of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which soon become a group sing-along as Nelson, Tritt, Crow, Williams and Kristofferson joined them for a rousing if rough send-off to Cash. (The major note of irony here is that the accompanying band was heavy on steel guitar — Cash never used steel guitar on his recordings or in his concerts after steel player A.W. “Red” Kernodle left Cash’s Tennessee Three band shortly before their audition with Sun Records’ Sam Phillips.)
“Johnny was always there. … June was my godmother,” said Williams before the show about the tribute. “That’s why I’m here tonight. … this is family stuff,” he said. “He was the man.”