Backstage at the Country Music Association Awards -- New blood reigns as Kenny Chesney nabs Entertainer of the Year; Alan Jackson goes home empty-handed

By Chris Willman
November 10, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Kenny Chesney: Mark Humphrey/AP

Backstage at the Country Music Association Awards

At his press conference following last year’s Country Music Association Awards, the big repeat winner — a modest and honestly embarrassed-looking Alan Jackson — all but begged voters to stop giving him the top prizes every year and reward some new blood. They took him up on it. Though Jackson led this year’s field of nominees with seven, he went home uncharacteristically empty-handed. It was Kenny Chesney, who’d been shut out up till now in his 12-year career, who claimed the mantle of Entertainer of the Year.

”If you were just looking at raw numbers, we would’ve won,” said Chesney after the show, a little less eager than Jackson to eschew the prize. Indeed, his tropics-centric When the Sun Goes Down CD — which also earned him an Album of the Year trophy — is the third-best-selling disc in all genres this year, trailing only Usher and Norah Jones. And he’s second in 2004 concert grosses, behind only Prince. ”But we’ve been able to drive some people into the format and help country music grow a little bit. And I feel that’s what the Entertainer of the Year is supposed to do.”

But country stars are famous for claiming that they get no respect, no respect at all, when it comes to the CMAs. (Just check in with Toby Keith, who’s only ever picked up one CMA trophy and didn’t have any more coming last night.) Chesney’s dis came when his microphone was cut off just a few sentences into his final acceptance speech as the clock ticked toward the all-important late news. ”It kinda sucked that they wouldn’t let me talk. You wait 12 years and they cut you off,” said Chesney, who will no doubt be crying all the way to the Caribbean National Bank.

The show gave plenty of props to the class of ’04. Typically, the nominees for the Horizon Award, which recognizes new talent, are shuffled off into a mutual medley or downgraded to a single verse and chorus. But this year, the category’s strong cast of nominees — the two big frosh success stories Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich, along with worthy newcomers Julie Roberts, Josh Turner, and Dierks Bentley — each got a decent performance slot.

Another change: While the CMA usually forces performers to do their already established smash hits, this year’s show included some fresh material. Producers asked Wilson to sing her new single, ”When I Think About Cheating,” presumably to show traditionalist-minded viewers there’s still a place for honky-tonk balladry. Wilson said performing the song unnerved her. ”As I was standing up there I realized this was probably the most traditional song they’ve heard in a while,” she said. ”So I decided to focus on one person. And I saw Alan Jackson in the front row and focused on him to calm my nerves, because he likes traditional music. He probably thinks I’m nuts, because I was staring at him the whole time.” So at least Jackson got the Visual Aid of the Year award.

Oon the less old-school end of the scale, Big & Rich were asked not to sing any of their three already-released singles — including the current ballad ”Holy Water” — but rather ”Rollin’ (The Ballad of Big 7amp; Rich),” their most hip-hop-influenced tune, which includes a bilingual rap. ”It was the show’s choice,” John Rich told before the telecast. ”We were gonna do ‘Holy Water,’ but the CMA board came to us and said, ‘You guys are country music without prejudice. We want to show the world what that is. Can you do ”Rollin”’ and have [country rapper] Cowboy Troy be there?’ And we’re like: Hell yes, we can! I think it shows a lot of forward thinking, because it’s not even out on the radio, but they want us to do that because of what it stands for. And Cowboy Troy will be the first black artist to be on the CMA Awards in way over a decade, like 18 years — since Charley Pride performed on there — and not only that, he’s rapping on top of that, which shows that country music fans like all kinds of music. It’s gonna be a historic night, we think.”

Also happy to be getting a performance slot — as well as a Musical Event of the Year award for his duet with Alison Krauss — was Brad Paisley. Their ”Whiskey Lullaby” was released as the third radio single off Paisley’s Mud on the Tires album, which came out in the summer of 2003. The single has been so successful that two-thirds of the album’s 1.3 million in sales have come since the beginning of the year — and ”yeah, for a second year out, that’s really strange,” Paisley told ”I mean, it’s not often that you turn on the radio and hear of two people killing themselves in a song, and also dealing with alcoholism. I think it’s sort of a return to some of the things that country artists sang about in the ’50s and ’60s, some of those really dark songs that people like Johnny Cash would do.”

Probably the most surprising win of the night was Keith Urban as Male Vocalist of the Year, which resulted in a truly spontaneous-seeming standing ovation. As a hatless Aussie with a bit of a rocker image, Urban isn’t exactly your grandfather’s country, but even traditionalists seem to agree he’s good for the genre. ”I just hope they continue with as much diversity as possible,” Urban said. ”To me it’s important to cover all the facets of country. People always talk about ‘Oh, hopefully country’s getting more like this.’ But it should always be a combination of things and always be acknowledging a vision that’s contemporary, as well.”

Everyone agrees: There’s far less musical conservatism in the format right now. But political conservatism? Although Music Row Democrats are slowly coming out of the closet, the fact that Senate majority leader Bill Frist was working the red carpet and that Dick Cheney’s assistant was standing nearby in a fur may not have dampened feelings that country is becoming the official genre of the GOP. This was further suggested by burly Montgomery Gentry singer Eddie Montgomery, who was sporting a flashy new jacket featuring a rhinestone flag and the legend ”Try and Burn This One.”

His (figuratively) inflammatory jacket aside, Montgomery was trying his darnednest not to come off a divider on the red carpet. ”Man, in America now, what I want more than anything is everybody to be united,” he tells ”In fact, this whole world, actually, that’s what it’s all about, so we can have parties like this everywhere. Maybe, hell, we can have the CMAs [in Iraq], who knows?” In Iraq?! ”Hey, you know what,” says Gentry, ”if it’s good enough for our heroes over there, it’s good enough for me.” Next year, of course, the CMAs are taking place at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which is a controversial enough move.

What did you think of last night’s show? Did the performances by the new generation of country music make for better television?