The CMA Awards kept its country twang intact during its first shindig here as Madison Square Garden was transformed into the Grand Ole Opry Tuesday night, with rootsy performances from Lee Ann Womack, Gretchen Wilson, Sara Evans and Rascal Flatts.
Appropriately, Womack led the winners with three awards over the evening, including album of the year for "There's More Where That Came From."
"Oh my God, I love country music!" Womack shouted as she accepted her award for single of the year for "I May Hate Myself in the Morning," a bittersweet ballad. Earlier in the evening, she won for best musical event for her duet with George Strait, "Good News, Bad News."
Womack and Brad Paisley led all award nominees with six each, although Paisley went home empty-handed.
Among the other multiple nominees, Aussie Keith Urban won for entertainer of the year and best male vocalist, Toby Keith won music video of the year for "As Good as I Once Was" and Gretchen Wilson won best female vocalist.
Jon Randall and Bill Anderson won song of the year for "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.
Rascal Flatts won for vocal group, and Brooks & Dunn took the vocal duo award.
The show, broadcast on CBS, kicked off with a performance by Big & Rich, who have shaken up country by mixing various genres, including hip-hop, in their music. The pair performed "Comin' to Your City," crooning: "We're comin' to New York City, we're gonna play our guitar and sing you a country song."
Other highlights included a performance by Garth Brooks in the middle of Times Square. In front of frenzied fans, Brooks sang "Good Ride Cowboy," a tribute to his friend and fellow country singer Chris LeDoux, who died of liver cancer this year.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared, and other comments and quips helped infuse the city in the show. Vince Gill did his best Bronx accent when he joked, "There's like a rule here in New York: that you can't do a show without a guy named Vinnie."
Pop stars joined the country party. Norah Jones played piano while Willie Nelson sang "Still Crazy After All These Years," and Paul Simon joined the pair and sang "Crazy." Even Elton John conformed to country, singing "Turn the Lights Out When You Leave" with Dolly Parton. The pair also sang John Lennon's "Imagine."
The CMA show's move from Nashville was designed to raise its profile in New York City. While country generates plenty of multi-platinum superstars and New York is one of its top markets in album sales, it lacks a major presence here, including a radio station devoted to the genre.
The move was a one-time stint; the show will return to Nashville for its 40th anniversary next year.