You can take the CMA Awards out of Nashville, but you can't take Nashville out of the CMA Awards.
Though purists worried that the soul of the Country Music Association Awards would be lost by moving the event from Nashville to New York for the first time, Tuesday's event showed that no matter where it travels, country music is country music - even in Manhattan.
"Oh my God, I love country music!" Lee Ann Womack, the evening's big winner with three awards, shouted as she accepted her award for single of the year for "I May Hate Myself In the Morning," a bittersweet ballad. Womack also won album of the year for "There's More Where That Came From" and for best musical event for her duet with George Strait, "Good News, Bad News."
Country music has been criticized at times for drifting more toward pop, and its move to New York City seemed to highlight those concerns.
But it was as if Madison Square Garden had been transformed into the Grand Ole Opry with the evening's rootsy performances. Performers from from Gretchen Wilson to Sara Evans to Alan Jackson seemed determined to "keep it country." Even country's most mainstream couple, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, seemed retro with their performance of "Like We Never Loved at All."
Appropriately, Womack emerged with the most wins: Her album marked her return to more traditional country music after a detour through pop-infused material.
Backstage, she said she hoped her wins would encourage more of her kind of country music.
"Sometimes I think we are scared of real country music but a message like what was in that song, that transcends any boundaries, and a great song is a great song," Womack said of "I May Hate Myself."
Although New York's skyline was the visual backdrop for the show and the ceremony had appearances by such non-country names as Billy Joel, Bon Jovi and Norah Jones, Nashville's stamp was clear.
The show kicked off with a fitting 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."
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