The rules of country

Times Staff Writer

Exceptions, IT'S said, prove the rule, and whatever rules govern country music these days, the exceptions proved the liveliest part of the 43rd Academy of Country Music Awards ceremony here on Sunday.

Like the first rule of country: Don't bite the hand that feeds. Yet who publicly groused about the ACM's big shift this year in allowing fan voting, a la "American Idol," to determine the winner of the night's top award, entertainer of the year?

The man who took home the trophy for the fourth straight year, Kenny Chesney.

Backstage moments after collecting the statue, Chesney said he had nothing against fans but believes that members of the music industry should make the call. Instead, he said the academy and CBS, which telecast the three-hour show, had turned the award "into a sweepstakes to see who can push people's buttons the hardest on the Internet. . . .

"The entertainer of the year trophy is supposed to represent heart and passion and an amazing amount of sacrifice, commitment and focus," he said. "That's the way Garth [Brooks] won it four times, that's the way I won it, that's the way [George] Strait won it, Reba [McEntire], Alabama all those years. That's what it's supposed to represent." Historically it has been given to the musician who had the most successful year on the concert trail.

"If fans could get on and vote 100 times, that's demeaning," ACM Executive Director Bob Romeo said Monday. "But we were very careful in policing this to protect the integrity of the award. We allowed one vote per IP address. I don't know if everybody completely understood that. My charter is to promote country music, and if we don't in the long run engage the country consumers, then I think we as the Academy of Country Music will be making a big mistake."

Rule 2: Keep it short. Winners were allotted 30 seconds for acceptance speeches. Despite a countdown beamed at recipients over giant video screens, several ran over, at which point the words "Please wrap up" appeared on a glaring red background. The exception: Garth Brooks, the exception to pretty much all the rules in country. Brooks was given the ACM's new Crystal Milestone Award for his recently certified 123 million album sales. There was no countdown during Brooks' remarks. Why an award for 123 million rather than 120 or 125 million? It's Garth Brooks.

Rule 3: Stick with a winner. In country perhaps more than any other genre, success breeds success. Besides Chesney's fourth win as entertainer, repeat visitors to the stage included Rascal Flatts, which collected its sixth consecutive vocal group win; Reba McEntire who returned for her 10th time as host; and Brooks & Dunn, who went home with a 13th consecutive country duo award. Could it have been the twosome is perennially popular with ACM voters at least in part because they so diligently adhere to Rule 2? Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn left the stage with 14 seconds remaining on their speech countdown.


'Idol' presence

Rule 4. "American Idol" rules. Beyond the "Idol"-ization of the entertainer of the year voting, the show opened with "Idol" winner Carrie Underwood, who won the female vocalist award for a second time; "Idol" alums Kelly Clarkson and Kellie Pickler were nominees; and Miranda Lambert, from the "Idol" country knockoff "Nashville Star," took home album of the year honors for her "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" collection. Exceptions: Clarkson and Pickler both lost in their categories. Then again, see Rule 3.

Rule 5: Water and electricity don't mix. Yet 18-year-old Taylor Swift, eyes agog when she was named top new female vocalist, was drenched to the bone late in an ersatz rainstorm during a number that wowed the crowd inside the MGM Grand Arena. ("It was the most fun I've ever had on stage -- I mean it," Swift said at her after-party. "It was such a magical night. . . . When George Strait comes up to you with a big old smile, and says 'That was great, kid' -- it doesn't get any better than that.")

Rule 6: Bigger, louder, flashier is better. The music emphasized the rocking side of country, most performers using thunderous, upbeat numbers presumably better able to hold the attention of a mainstream TV audience. The exception: a short but touching tribute to country pioneer Eddy Arnold, who died May 8 and who had expanded country's audience dramatically in the 1950s and '60s with his elegant, pop-flavored sound. Underwood and Brad Paisley, with only Paisley's guitar backing them, sang his signature hit "Make the World Go Away" in the evening's quietest, and most powerful, musical performance.


Boys' night out

Rule 7. Men rule. Conventional wisdom in Nashville is that because women buy most country music, they prefer hearing men sing it, which is why men far outnumber women on the country sales chart. Shania Twain and Faith Hill proved exceptions in the '90s, both entering the multiplatinum stratosphere usually reserved for Y chromosomal performers. But it's largely been back to the rule in the new millennium. Last year, Underwood managed to break through the male domination of all fields except those that are gender specific. This year, Sugarland, Swift, Lambert, Lady Antebellum and the Wreckers placed women in mixed-gender fields as nominees. Still, none managed to crack the all-male club of entertainer of the year nominees.

Rule 8. Promote the new. The ACM stopped requiring performers to sing their nominated songs years ago, allowing them instead to use the nationwide broadcast to promote their latest hits, or would-be hits. Six of the numbers on Sunday's show are currently in the Top 10 of Billboard's country singles chart. No exceptions.

Rule 9. Don't rock the boat. Today's country radio programmers adore upbeat, uplifting, compact country songs that don't sound too country, and they prefer male singers (per Rule 7). So Sugarland's double win for "Stay," as song (for songwriter Jennifer Nettles) and single (a combination of song, performance and production), broke several rules. Chiefly, it's nearly five minutes long, practically unheard on country radio and the record has no drums, extremely rare in country, even for a ballad.

"It messed with the formula, and formula is pretty important in country radio," said Kristian Bush, huddled with Nettles, his Sugarland partner, in a quiet hallway during a respite from well-wishers reveling in the adjacent lounge. "But a song needs to be good and it needs to communicate. . . .

"We're fortunate because we got to make the video for this one, and a lot of people first heard the song by running across it on YouTube," Bush said. "There you can get caught up in the narrative and don't notice so much that it doesn't have drums."

Nettles took the awards for "Stay" as a sign that "it's a good time in the music industry.

"I know a lot of labels are scared because they aren't selling records," she said. "But when you're in one of those spots where change is happening, it opens doors to experimentation, and you can try something different."


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