Go backstage at the Country Music Awards. The long-absent Shania Twain makes a grand entrance, but it's Alan Jackson who carries the show
Shania Twain
Credit: Shania Twain: Adele Starr/Getty Images/Newscom

Hey, Alan Jackson, you just won a record-tying five Country Music Association Awards for the 9/11-themed “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” This caps a year in which you got thanked by scores of survivors, moved 10s of millions… even, some would say, helped heal a hurting nation. What are you gonna do next?

“I’m ready to just get back to them drinking songs,” Jackson said backstage at Opryland in Nashville after Wednesday night’s telecast, resisting a reporter’s suggestion that he might try to outdo himself by writing more emotionally wrenching ballads. “That’s too heavy, all the time. I’ve tried not to be too preachy in my songs, because a lot of people are trying to get away from something unhappy.”

Mourning is over. Let the beer runs resume! That might have been the message taken away from much of the 36th annual CMAs, and not just because Jackson chose to sing the sprightly “That’d Be All Right” instead of the sort of weeper that just cemented his place in history. If last year’s show is best remembered for the world premiere of his then-freshly-penned ballad about the national tragedies, the image most will take away from this year’s is of Shania Twain’s show-opening entrance on a motorcycle (or maybe just her impossibly flat tummy).

Not that country’s sober side was ignored altogether. Martina McBride fulfilled the social consciousness quotient by performing “Concrete Angel,” a new single about children growing up with economic hardship; and Kenny Chesney’s “A Lot of Things Different” — sort of the anti-“My Way” — tugged at heartstrings with its litany of roads not taken and regretted. But perhaps more characteristic of the mood was Toby Keith’s frisky “Who’s Your Daddy,” pointedly scheduled for the show in place of the singer’s own angry 9/11 anthem.

Where were the daddies of country music? Not much in evidence, although Dolly Parton sang her recent “Hello, God” with a full choir and presenter George Jones was allowed a snippet of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

The pre-telecast parade of celebs before the awaiting photographers provided proof that, for better and worse, country, too, has turned into a youth brigade. Something you wouldn’t have seen even just a few years ago: Back-to-back appearances on the red carpet by bands whose lead singers had spiked their hair punkishly straight up, Rascal Flatts and Nickel Creek. Country hasn’t abandoned its rural roots, but hunting moose has taken on new meaning.

Yet for traditionalists, the music is in somewhat safe hands, as long as Jackson and George Strait are still allowed on the grounds. “I came to Nashville because I liked Conway Twitty and Gene Watson,” Jackson recalled backstage, “and I was a young man, and nobody young was doing it. And Randy Travis, bang, he hit the month I came to town, Sept. ’85.”