On paper, it was Carrie Underwood's night at the American Country Awards, as she led the pack by earning six awards at the brand new music kudocast. But if you were watching the show on Fox, or even live at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, you might have blinked and missed her. She didn't sing, and there were so few awards given out during the performance-heavy telecast that Underwood wasn't even a presence on the show until the closing moments, when she picked up her sole on-air trophy.
What viewers did see: a parade of country stars and up-and-comers that was mostly youngish and mostly male. The poster boy for the event might have been freshman Easton Corbin, who performed his breakthrough hit "A Little More Country Than That" on top of coming away with three awards.
If three trophies sounds like a lot for a guy with only one album out, consider that the ACAs determined to up the freshness quotient by having three categories expressly for new artists instead of the one traditionally doled out at the CMA and ACM Awards. And Corbin made a clean sweep of them, picking up Breakthrough Artist of the Year, Breakthrough Artist Single of the Year, and Breakthrough Artist Music Video. You thought some other artists, like the Band Perry, also broke through this year? Well, here's some news: Easton Corbin is a little more breakthrough than that.
In the press room after the show, Toby Keith—who picked up a discretionary award doled out by the shows producers, for being a Video Visionary—extolled the AMAs over the CMAs and ACMs, which he's attacked in the past for supposedly ignoring him on political grounds.
"I haven't been associated with (those other awards) in a long time," Keith said. "But I railed for years—when I had the energy—against the machine. When you have 1500 people voting and they all have agendas, it really dillutes it, and it makes the fan always scratch their heads (and) get really angry. You can take all the bitching out of it. We can't bitch if the fans vote and you lose. But if you've had the biggest year—ticket sales, album sales, radio play—and then you get shut out of an awards show because of agenda stuff, then your fans don't understand, and it takes credibility away from the whole organization. But this here is at least trying to go the right thing."
(Toby was asked about his new Grammy nomination for "Cryin' for Me (Wayman's Song)," about the late basketball player Wayman Tisdale. He came close to laughing it off. "As many hits as I've had, I've never been in there before, and then I write a tribute to a basketball player who played bass left-handed, and I do a jazz track to it and I bring in a jazz soloist and jazz bass player and get nominated for a country Grammy. So maybe next year I'll go with a hip-hop song and see if I can get in there.")
The emphasis on the F-word—fans—led to the most amusing exchange in the press room, when one journalist asked Carrie Underwood how it felt to win awards that were voted by the audience instead of the industry/
It's nice, she said, but "my whole career has been fan-based, pretty much," she added, alluding to the Idol-atry that started it all. D'oh!
Underwood won Artist of the Year, Artist of the Year: Female, Album of the Year (Play On), Single of the Year ("Cowboy Casanova"), Touring Headline Package of the Year (which is the mouthful of the year), and Music Video: Female (also "Cowboy Casanova")—again, only one of which was presented on the show, making her eventual appearance both a climax and a sort of anticlimax.
Believe it or not, that did still leave room for a few other artists to pick up trophies. Grammy favorites Lady Antebellum showed up to pick up three awards, though they chose to let last week's American Music Awards number be their last TV performance of the year. "Going into the holidays," Dave Haywood explained on the red carpet, "this is the last work-related event we have to attend for the rest of the year, so it's a big party for us... I'm interested to see how it goes the very first year. There's a lot of new acts performing that we're excited to see." (In other words: Let's leave this show to the new kids till we make sure it's not a one-year flash in the pan.)
Certain performances by veteran artists were assured by virtue of tribute segments highlighting an act's entire career. Besides Toby Keith, Alan Jackson and Rascal Flatts were also thus awarded and turned in greatest-hits medleys.
As Underwood noted of Jackson's particularly action-packed medley: "I was really happy watching Alan Jackson get up there and sing, like, 53 songs. That was like my first concert condensed into five minutes."
Blake Shelton started the show by performing "Kiss My Country Ass," a song that almost certainly would not have been chosen for the mainstream-baiting CMAs or ACMs, and one obviously meant to signal that this would be a show where a certain kind of red-state mentality would not just be accepted but proudly brandished. The choice of Trace Adkins as host also suggested that the Fox network might be going after the Fox News demographic.
Adkins wouldn't be anyone's idea of a smooth host, but that was the idea, and his no-nonsense manner led to the show's most spontaneous moments—which afforded a glimpse of how much fun the telecast could be if it let down its hair, handed out some drinks, and tried to become the Golden Globes of country awards instead of just a rush of random performance slots.
Adkins started the show by declaring that the producers had asked him to do a comic monologue but he was declining, on the spot. "What are they going to do, fire me in the middle of the show?" This felt like planned schtick, until Adkins impatiently waved at the cue-card minders to move past whatever jokes had been scripted for him, which felt real enough. Later, he shouted at the audience, "Shut up! We're running late!" (No joke: Extended ovations for Reba and other stars really did put the show behind, with nervous producers utterly certain that Fox would go to the news at 10 whether Carrie had made her cameo or not.)
Another supposedly—and believably—unscripted moment: Adkins announced that none of the awards he was up for were set to be announced on-air, but he'd had a conversation about that with a producer who was recovering nicely in the hospital. He then presented himself and Shelton the award for their "Hillbilly Bone" video, and gave Shelton's acceptance speech for him—thanking God, country radio, etc.—and told his duet partner he only had time to thank one person. Shelton picked Cher.
That kind of tomfoolery could go a long way toward making a second annual ACAs less rushed-feeling and more fun. But maybe Shelton, who is the master of that stuff, should host in year 2, in which case the ACAs could maybe out-Golden-Globe the Golden Globes.
This year's edition has its moments, though, and the ACAs did offer more than just lip service to their promise to spotlight newer artists. They gave one slot to an excellent act that doesn't even have a full album out yet: Steel Magnolia (whose full-length will arrive 1-11-11). The duo livened things up by casting themselves as Grease-y Travolta and Newton-John in a run-through of their breakthrough single, "Keep On Loving You."
I had my own Underwood/d'oh moment when I asked Steel Magnolia on the red carpet whether they felt up to the pressure of such a high-profile TV moment. "That was our genesis, on television," Meghan Lindsey reminded me—this being a duo that found fame on CMT's Can You Duet competition, after all. "That was good rehearsal and practice for this. It wasn't live, though, even though they never let us redo it. We're just gonna pretend that this isn't live, either."
The savviest move the ACAs made may have been giving a full performance slot to the breakout act of the moment, the Band Perry, who were pushed into a truncated slot on the CMAs where singer Kimberly Perry actually had to announce the cut to commercial while the group was still performing "If I Die Young."
Coming into this show, "If I Die Young" was country's No. 1 single, which should be reflected in all of 2011's country awards shows. When I mentioned the song's expanded status on the ACAs to Kimberly Perry on the red carpet, she broke into a happy little impromptu jig. "Yes! This is our 'whole song' dance!"
And, like the other artists who came, she didn't think four major country awards shows is too many. "We can't have too many parties!" she exulted. "That's impossible!"