Talk about new kids on the block!

Last night, the 24th annual Country Music Awards were dominated by folks who were virtual unknowns as little as two or three years ago, and have now swept into the spotlight so recently occupied by the mid-'80s wave of neo-traditionalists. Two of that crop, Randy Travis and Reba McEntire, were on hand to host the CBS program, and a few showed up performing or presenting awards, but they took only two of the 11 awards (George Strait was named Entertainer of the Year, the Judds vocal duo).

In fact, the night belonged to the young folks, many of them earning their first nominations: the Kentucky Headhunters, Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Kathy Mattea, one of the few women nominated for anything outside the female vocalist category, which she won for the second straight year.

The Kentucky Headhunters, an unsightly and unlikely veteran bar band, won for best album ("Pickin' on Nashville") and best vocal group (they wisely thanked the Flying Burrito Brothers for making rock-country fusion possible back in the '60s). Brooks, signed at a Nashville songwriters' showcase three years ago, won the Horizon Award as top newcomer, while his "The Dance" was named best video. Black, who won last year's Horizon, was named top male vocalist.

Mattea's victory was doubly sweet: Her husband, Jon Vezner, shared the songwriting honor with Don Henry for the hit written for Mattea, "Where've You Been." Another husband-wife team took the vocal event award, but the circumstances were more somber: Lorrie Morgan was honored for her work with her late husband, Keith Whitley (who died last year of alcohol-related problems).

Vince Gill, who has been writing hits for others and struggling to catch country's current new waves, won for best single, "When I Call Your Name." "I've worked for this for a long time," Gill said, "so I'm going to stand up here for a long time." He didn't, and in fact the two-hour show was as fast and slickly paced as ever, with only two miscues. Brooks suffered through a lame and patronizing dance number as he sang "I've Got Friends (In Low Places)." And at the end of the show, the U.S. Air Force Chorale marched down the aisles of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry House and joined with assorted country stars in a series of patriotic songs. Patriotism is nothing new in country music, but this display suggested we're sliding into a wartime mentality.

Washington's Mary Chapin Carpenter earned a standing ovation for her lament, "Opening Act," which recounted the tribulations of that job in ways that apparently evoked instant recognition from many folks in the full house. Many other singers, including heartthrobs Alan Jackson, Ricky Van Shelton, Black and Strait, performed as well, but often their songs seemed truncated to 90- to 120-second music bites served up with a tad too much slickness. The old guard seemed old indeed, and we're not even talking pioneers like Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl, who used to be onstage but have now been relegated to audience reaction shots. The Oak Ridge Boys sounded creaky but were needed to induct Hall of Famer Tennessee Ernie Ford. The Judds were still crying after all their awards, maybe because they only got one this year. They were one of the few acts to thank God (though everybody was thanking radio and their record companies). Brooks did also, but in less reverent terms than usual: "I'd like to thank the good Lord because he's done a helluva lot for me."