Keith Urban pulled an upset Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden, where he was named entertainer of the year over expected winner Kenny Chesney at the 39th annual Country Music Association Awards – which brought the traditional Nashville ceremony to the Big Apple for the first time.
“This is good for all of us,” the Australian-born Urban, who also was named male vocalist of the year for the second time running, said backstage about holding the event in the media capital of the world. “This is good for a lot of New Yorkers that are starved for their country music.”
Bettering Urban with three awards was Lee Ann Womack, who took the album of the year prize for There’s More Where That Came From, which marked her return to country roots after years of recording pop songs. Her “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” was named single of the year, and her “Good News, Bad News” duet with George Strait was musical event of the year.
“Oh my God, I love country music!” Womack shouted during her acceptance for “I May Hate Myself In the Morning.” Backstage, she said of the bittersweet ballad: “Sometimes I think we are scared of real country music but a message like what was in that song, that transcends any boundaries, and a great song is a great song.”
Womack and Brad Paisley went into the event with the most nominations – six each – though Paisley ultimately was shut out of the winners’ circle. As for those who scored trophies: Toby Keith, for music video (“As Good As I Once Was”); Gretchen Wilson, best female vocalist; Brooks & Dunn, vocal duo (for a lucky 13th time); Rascal Flatts, vocal group; Dierks Bentley, the Horizon Award for emerging artists; and Jon Randall and Bill Anderson, song of the year (“Whiskey Lullaby,” sung by Alison Krauss and Paisley).
“I’ve probably been writing songs in Nashville longer than anybody. My first co-writer was Andrew Jackson,” Anderson joked.
Chesney kicked off the show (broadcast on CBS) with “Living in Fast Forward” from his new album The Road and the Radio. Big & Rich also performed, singing “Comin’ to Your City,” featuring such place-appropriate lyrics as: “We’re comin’ to New York City, we’re gonna play our guitar and sing you a country song.”
Garth Brooks stopped the show – and traffic – in Times Square, singing “Good Ride Cowboy,” a tribute to his friend and fellow country singer Chris LeDoux, who died of liver cancer this year.
Though the ceremony’s producers have announced that the CMAs will return to Nashville for next year’s 40th anniversary, Tuesday’s event included such Noo Yawk touches as a cameo by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Vince Gill’s attempting a Bronx accent. Joked Gill: “There’s like a rule here in New York, that you can’t do a show without a guy named Vinnie.”
Even so, the night’s country roots kept showing. Willie Nelson sang “Still Crazy After All These Years” with Norah Jones on piano – and were then joined by Paul Simon, on “Crazy.” Another city-country hybrid: Elton John and Dolly Parton’s singing “Turn the Lights Out When You Leave,” as well as John Lennon’s “Imagine.”