Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Tonight, of course, is the 37th annual Country Music Association awards. Yes, I know, it seems that apart from the film industry, no one likes to pat themselves on the back more than the Nashville crew. But the CMAs are different, because they're the realest - they're the original country music honors - and they've got the Country Music Hall of Fame. [Going in this year: Carl Smith and Floyd Cramer.] The CMAs are to the Grammys as the ACMs are to the AMAs. They're the big 'uns.

So, Toby Keith looks like the man to beat this year, with 7 nods, most of them for his duet with Willie Nelson on "Beer For My Horses." If the dynamic duo picks up Single of the Year (that's a link to all of the nominees), Willie would become the only artist to take that particular trophy home three times; he won with Waylon Jennings in '76 for "Good Hearted Woman," and in '82 for his Elvis cover "Always On My Mind." If either Randy Travis ("Forever and Ever, Amen," '87) or Johnny Cash ("A Boy Named Sue," 1969) pull off astounding comebacks and win, they'll join Willie and last year's champ, Alan Jackson, as the only ones to win it twice. Also keep in mind that a victory here for Cash's "Hurt" would mark only the second time in the history of the award that a single which peaked below #40 on the Billboard Country Singles Chart take the biggest prize. [The first? The Soggy Bottom Boys' "I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow" just 2 years ago.]

The specter of Cash, of course, looms mightily over this year's awards. He's got 4 nominations (Album for American IV: The Man Comes Around, Single and Video for "Hurt," and Vocal Event for a collabo with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), and there's going to be a special tribute to him from Hank Williams, Jr., Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, Travis Tritt, and the aforementioned Dirt Band. Expect to hear a myriad of tributes to the Man in Black from the podium this year (host Vince Gill is a HUGE fan - though, really, who isn't?), and expect to hear his name called as a winner at least once. He's got to be considered a stone lock to win Video of the Year; in any other year, Brad Paisley would get this for his hilarious "Celebrity" clip (which he'll be re-enacting onstage tonight), but the truly awesome power behind "Hurt" is undeniable.

The big(ger) question is, could Cash pull off a bigger shocker and win Album of the Year? Barring a Toby landslide, I think he can and will. The Dixie Chicks deserve this prize for Home, one of the most fully realized, complete statements of art (and fun) of the last year, but have no chance, I think. If they win, I'll be thrilled, but also utterly shocked (politics certainly plays a role here). Which means a lot of folks who might have voted for the Chicks will switch their allegiance to Cash. And, honestly, there will be a definite sympathy vote for John R. as well (and for those unaware, the nominations were announced before his passing - he actually received these nods on merit, though I think the longplayer rides the coattails of the single and video). I say he takes it. Neither Horizon Award nominee Joe Nichols nor previous winner Tim McGraw should be a factor here.

In Female Vocalist, I think you'd have to be a fool to bet against reigning queen Martina McBride, whom Nashville seems to have anointed their new, true diva (Shania + Faith = 0 nominations), though the fact that Dolly Parton made the cut for the first time since '87 - and let's be honest, who doesn't love Dolly? - may bode well for her. Alison Krauss, Terri Clark, and Patty Loveless were all too quiet this year, and Trisha Yearwood's missing from the category for the first time since '96.

Male Vocalist is a tougher call. The easy way out would be to go with Toby, who took this home last year and assuredly won't go home empty-handed tonight. Making predix more difficult in this category is the fact that due to a tie, there are six nominees. McGraw, Jackson, and perennial George Strait will likely have to settle for their noms, which leaves hotshot Paisley and Kenny Chesney, both of whom are coming off banner years - especially Chesney, who's really only been eclipsed by Keith and the Chicks in '03 (including his first massive headlining outing, a big summer success). Call it Toby, with Chesney the dark horse and the much-loved-in-Nashville Paisley coming up fast.

Vocal Group likely won't go to the deserving Chicks, and Lonestar and Diamond Rio should just enjoy their prime seats at the Opry. Who else? Veterans Alabama - this is their 20th nod in this category, and amazingly, they've only won three times previously ('81-'83) - and young bucks Rascal Flatts (their second nod). Rascal Flatts, much like Paisley, are a young group coming off a huge year which saw their sophomore album Melt go platinum fast than you can say "platinum." They're also the most pop of the five nominees. Alabama, however, will get a big block of votes because they're retiring. Don't count 'em out, but bet on the Flatts to take home their first CMA Award tonight.

If you don't know who's gonna win Vocal Duo, a category which really should be discontinued, you must know nothing about country music. As CMT's Chet Flippo points out, Brooks & Dunn, good as they are, were seemingly put together for the sole purpose of winning this award upon the Judds's retirement - and they have, 10 times. Make it 11.

Vocal Event of the Year is always a wacky category, one pulling in guest star-packed album tracks and high-profile cross-genre collabos, and this year's no exception. Alongside the Nitty Gritty/Cash collabo are Toby & Willie, Alan & Jimmy Buffet with their recent #1 "It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere," a Tracy Byrd all-male fiesta that you needn't bother yourself with, and Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow's "Picture" (which actually made it to #21 on the country chart). This is a toughie. Toby & Willie were huge, Alan & Jimmy were huge (and will open the show with a performance of said smash), and Rock & Crow's pairing was a breath of fresh air on both radio and video channels. I can't imagine the legions of "Margaritaville" fans in the industry denying Alan & Jimmy, however.

I can't be bothered with the Horizon Award, a/k/a Best New Artist When We Get Around To It.

The songwriters, Nashville Gods, get their moment of glory with Song of the Year, and this year, the category mirrors Single of the Year with one exception - that being the 800-pound elephant that is Cash's "Hurt." I guess the Nashville establishment just couldn't bring themselves to nominate the industrial titan Trent Reznor for his phenomenal composition (originally, of course, recorded by nine inch nails) - but wouldn't you have loved to see him on the Opry stage? The mind boggles. Taking its place here is Brooks & Dunn's "Red Dirt Road," which means (since it's not up for the corresponding Single award) it doesn't have a chance in hell. Paisley's "Celebrity" seems to light for either trophy, Darryl Worley's war-baiting RNC anthem "Have You Forgotten?" too strident (and stale - it was a true flash-in-the-pan record, and let's hope he's never forgiven for it). Which results in a very interesting pair duking it out. On one hand, you've got the Keith/Nelson duet - alright single, but to bestow upon it the award as the best-written country record of the year seems a bit much. Left standing, then, is Travis, whose shocked-the-hell-outta-everyone comeback, "Three Wooden Crosses" (from his second gospel album, no less!), is a marvel of both writing and (as always is his case) performance. I think "Crosses" takes home Song, and has an excellent shot at Single, too - shades of '98, when Steve Wariner pulled a similar coup with "Holes in the Floor of Heaven." I don't expect Cash to win in Single, but think that Toby & Willie have a really good shot. However, I'm going to stick to my guns (as it were) and say that Nashville welcomes back Mr. Travis with wide-open arms and awards him two big prizes (and let's hope he can keep it back up).

What's left? Entertainer of the Year. [If you think I'm handicapping Musician of the Year, you've gotta be crazy - but let's hope it goes to Union Station's brilliant dobro player Jerry Douglas.] The Chicks, interestingly, even having had the year's biggest country tour, are absent from this category, which really makes it no contest - as big as the year was for McGraw, Jackson, Chesney, and B&D, Toby Keith practically owned 2003 in country music, and will be rewarded with the CMA's ultimate prize.

The funny thing about the CMAs is that the awards almost seem secondary - there's only 12 given out during the show, which means the bulk of the 3 hours is filled with lots of funny one-lines from host Gill, and performances out the wazoo - over 20 this year, including a Parton/Norah Jones duet. And if you can't be bothered, well, you know I'll have something (or a few somethings) to say about 'em tomorrow. [The CMAs are at 8pm EST tonight on CBS.]

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