Strait to the Top: Singer Is CMA King

Stalwart singer-songwriter George Strait became the winningest artist in the history of the Country Music Association Awards, when he won album and single of the year at Wednesday night's 42nd Annual CMA Awards in Nashville.
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008

NASHVILLE, Nov. 12 -- Meet the new country, same as the old country.

The prevailing sounds and styles may change on Music Row, but there's at least one major constant in country music: George Strait, the genre's most popular modern traditionalist.

Strait, 56, on Wednesday became the winningest artist in the history of the Country Music Association Awards, when he won album and single of the year for "Troubadour" and its lead single, "I Saw God Today."

"Everybody says they got the greatest fans; I really got the greatest fans," Strait said. He could have been talking about the CMA voters, given that the album award was Strait's eighth in the category, the single his third. He has won 22 CMAs, more than any other artist.

Kenny Chesney won entertainer of the year, the industry's top honor, for the third consecutive time and fourth overall. Backstage, Chesney said Strait's run isn't likely to end anytime soon. "Just like a great song is timeless, so is George Strait," he said. "That's the key. His style is timeless."

The country-pop boy band Rascal Flatts won its sixth straight vocal group of the year award. "Every year, it gets scarier," Flatts singer-guitarist Joe Don Rooney said. "All these kids are coming up, and we're getting old." One of those newcomers, coed trio Lady Antebellum, won new artist of the year.

Country prom queen Carrie Underwood, who co-hosted the show, was named female vocalist of the year for the third consecutive time. Her much funnier co-host, Brad Paisley, won his second consecutive male vocalist of the year.

Sugarland won vocal duo of the year for the second year in a row, and its singer, Jennifer Nettles, won song of the year -- a writing award -- for "Stay," an aching ballad about betrayal. The recording of "Stay," which features a wrenching vocal by Nettles, was nominated for single of the year but lost to Strait's "I Saw God Today," a ballad about seeing God in nature or a newborn baby.

More than anything, the CMAs emphasized live music: There were 21 songs performed at the downtown Sommet Center, spanning a broad spectrum of sounds and styles.

Alan Jackson sang the up-tempo shuffle "Good Time," about working hard and playing harder, during which dancers filled the aisles in an awkward attempt to turn the arena into a cavernous honky-tonk. Reba McEntire joined Brooks & Dunn for the loping "Cowgirls Don't Cry," a true country-and-western song, and Underwood powered through the soaring "Just a Dream" while her mother cried in the audience.

The fabulous Taylor Swift lived out some sort of teenagerly fairy-tale fantasy during "Love Story," a power-pop song that actually lacked power, thanks to an unfortunate mix that pushed Swift's thin lead vocal out front. Neat late-song wardrobe change, though.

Rodney Atkins twanged his way through the banjo-driven "It's America," in which he celebrated all things Americana (a high school prom, a Springsteen song, a ride in a Chevrolet, a man on the moon, fireflies in June). Miranda Lambert, the wildly talented, wild-eyed singer-songwriter who once smashed her Gibson Epiphone onstage at the CMAs, showed a more tender side, performing the sorrowful, strummy ballad "More Like Her."

Chesney performed his latest hit, "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven," a bright, breezy song that featured a calypso groove, an arena-rock guitar riff and the current iteration of Bob Marley's old band, the Wailers. Because it would've been silly to bring them here from Jamaica just for a bit part, the Wailers also did Marley's "Three Little Birds."

And Kid Rock sang his how-is-this-country? Southern rock mash-up, "All Summer Long," and offered geographical confusion in the process: The Detroit genre-jumper sang lyrics about Alabama while wearing a Tennessee Titans jersey. He also brought New Orleans rap star Lil Wayne onto the stage, just because.

Throughout the show, the singers seemed to have more pitch problems than Nuke LaLoosh, missing note (James Otto) after note (Kellie Pickler). Even the power belter Martina McBride -- called "Pipes" by Paisley -- sounded occasionally sharp during "Ride." Is there a rack-mount Auto-Tuner in the house?

One of the better vocal performances came from one of the genre's newest and, perhaps, most surprising stars: Darius Rucker, the Hootie and the Blowfish singer who has found instant success in the country genre as a solo singer. He received a standing ovation after performing his hit, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It."

Afterward, Rucker said he was thrown off when he spotted one of the giants of the genre staring at him onstage as he began the song. "I start looking at the crowd and the first thing I notice is George Strait looking at me playing," Rucker said. "That was surreal for me."

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