More than a few eyebrows were raised last year when the Country Music Association announced it was taking its annual awards show to New York City.
But a year later, the wisdom of that decision is playing out in the form of record sales and continued publicity for the industry's biggest stars.
Through the third quarter of this year, country artists have sold close to 50 million units of their music, including digital sales. That total represents a 10.8 percent increase over last year, which is even more impressive given that other genres have experienced a decline of 5.2 percent during the same period, according to Tammy Genovese, CMA chief operating officer.
Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw-Faith Hill have had two of the highest grossing tours of the year, and People magazine devoted an entire recent issue to country stars.
"I just met with People, and they told me that if we had not been in New York last year, this probably wouldn't have happened," Genovese said. "Before, [mainstream media] didn't understand what we were all about, but then we showed up in their backyard, and they got it."
But CMA officials always expected the awards show to return to Nashville this year - the 40th anniversary of the event.
"Nashville is our home. Just about all the artists live here," Genovese said. "We did New York as a marketing stunt, and it worked, but we're going to celebrate the 40th anniversary in Nashville."
And there's another change for the CMA show this year. For the first time, the event will be broadcast on ABC (8 to 11 p.m. Monday on WTVG-TV, Channel 13, in Toledo), ending a long-term relationship with CBS. It will be aired live from the Gaylord Entertainment Center in downtown Nashville.
Despite pulling in more than 36 million viewers last year, there was more than a little grumbling among CMA officials that CBS was giving only a halfhearted effort in promoting last year's event.
"Working with ABC has been a joy," Genovese said. "They've been very proactive and aggressive. You're seeing promotions everywhere, which is an element we didn't see with CBS last year. On ABC, we're also getting a chance to target a younger demo. At the end of the day, hopefully, we'll draw more than the 36 million we did last year."
Returning as hosts this year will be Brooks & Dunn, who are tied with Brad Paisley for the most nominations with six. They, along with Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill, will open the show with a performance of "Building Bridges." Other artists scheduled to perform are Dierks Bentley, Chesney, Sara Evans, Hill, Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Martina McBride, Paisley, Rascal Flatts, George Strait, Sugarland, Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood, John Rich, Gretchen Wilson, the Wreckers, and Jason Aldean.
Presenters include a host of country music stars and several ABC actors. There will also be a special hall of fame induction for George Strait.
As for the awards, there are surprises each year, but here's a look at some of the most prestigious categories and who might take home the trophies.
•Horizon Award: This award is given to a relative newcomer to the industry who has the potential to make the biggest impact. Nominees: Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Sugarland, Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood.
It's a pretty good barometer about the health of country music when you take a look at these emerging stars. Little Big Town, with tight harmonies, made a splash with the hit single, "Boondocks." Sugarland's debut CD, "Twice the Speed of Life," has gone well over the platinum mark. It's hard to argue with the success of Turner, who has hit platinum with each of his first two albums. However, Underwood is already one of country's biggest stars. Her single, "Jesus, Take the Wheel," spent weeks at No. 1, and her album, "Some Hearts," has sold more than 3 million copies. It reached that level faster than any other debut female country artist. The pick: Underwood.
•Female Vocalist of the Year: Nominees: Sara Evans, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood, Gretchen Wilson.
Evans might get some support from sympathetic voters in the wake of her filing for divorce from longtime husband Craig Schelske. Hill has teamed with husband Tim McGraw for the most popular country tour of the year. Underwood continues to capitalize on her American Idol fame and to add traditional country fans. Wilson's debut album, "Here for the Party," was recently recognized for selling more than 5 million copies, a mind-boggling total. The pick: Underwood.
•Male Vocalist of the Year: Nominees: Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban.
Bentley is on fire - his first two albums have gone platinum, and his third album is atop the Billboard Country Albums chart. Chesney keeps piling up hits and setting attendance records for his concerts. Jackson has gained a lot of praise for his new album with Alison Krauss, "Like Red on a Rose," and for his nominated album, "Precious Memories." Paisley is nominated in six categories this year, so voters obviously like him. Urban probably would have been the pick until it was disclosed that he admitted himself into a rehab clinic and will not appear at the show. That announcement happened as voters were making their final picks. The pick: Bentley.
•Album of the Year: Nominees: "Hillbilly Deluxe," Brooks & Dunn; "Me and My Gang," Rascal Flatts; "Precious Memories," Alan Jackson; "Time Well Wasted," Brad Paisley, and "The Road and the Radio," Kenny Chesney.
Brooks & Dunn hit it big with Single of the Year nominee "Believe." Rascal Flatts has had unbelievable success with "Me and My Gang" as it closes in on the 4 million sales mark. Jackson had to be talked into releasing "Precious Memories," which was meant to be a Christmas gift for his mother, but it's been one of his most successful projects. "Time Well Wasted" is Paisley's fourth album, and it contains big hits "The World, "Alcohol," and "When I Get Where I'm Going." He's just a solid hitmaker. Chesney has had four hits from "The Road and the Radio": "Summertime," "Living in Fast Forward," "Who You'd Be Today," and "You Save Me." The pick: "Me and My Gang."
•Entertainer of the Year: Nominees: Rascal Flatts, Brooks & Dunn, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, and Kenny Chesney.
All the merits have been spelled out for each of these nominees in previous categories, but two of them separate themselves as entertainers. Urban is an incredible guitar player and has a stage presence that turns his show into a rock concert environment. Chesney has been selling out concerts within minutes for several years now, and his shows get bigger and better every year. The pick: Chesney.
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