For George Strait, the wait was worth it.
"I couldn't be happier," the laid-back Texas honky-tonker said Monday night after being named the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year.Strait had been nominated for country's top honor for five consecutive years and 1989 fulfilled his dreams. "I really wanted this one," he said. "Every (country) entertainer wants this award. It is very special."
Strait said his wife, Norma, told him beforehand that he would win. "I didn't believe her," he added.
Asked if he was surprised by his award, Strait replied: "I was surprised when I won all my awards. I don't consider myself a great singer, but I can compete out there."
Strait said his gold-selling album this year, "Beyond The Blue Neon," is his best ever, and he said that may have contributed to his victory over last year's winner Hank Williams Jr., this year's favorite Randy Travis, Ricky Van Shelton and Reba McEntire.
The two-hour 23rd annual awards show was telecast live from the Grand Ole Opry House by CBS.
Also Monday night, Keith Whitley became the first to win an active CMA award posthumously. Whitley won Single of the Year for "I'm No Stranger to the Rain," which became his third straight record to reach the top of the country charts a month before his death on May 9 from alcohol abuse. He was 33.
"He did it. Thank y'all," his wife, Grand Ole Opry star Lorrie Morgan, told the audience. "Five months ago on this date, I lost the world's greatest husband, and country music in my eyes lost the world's greatest singer."
Whitley, whose hard life and tragic death reflected the lyrics of his heart-wrenching, honky-tonk songs, died at his home outside Nashville. An autopsy showed he drank himself to death. His blood alcohol content registered 0.47, meaning he drank the equivalent of 22 shots of 100-proof whiskey.
"I lost my friend to alcoholism and I pray that because of his death, many will live," country star Ricky Skaggs, a friend of Whitley's from their boyhood in the backwoods of Kentucky, said in an emotional tribute to the singer during the show.
In other awards, Kathy Mattea was named Female Vocalist of the Year, and Ricky Van Shelton won Male Vocalist of the Year.
"I'd like to say thank you to all the radio stations that play my records. There's too many people to name . . . just everybody who loves country music," said Van Shelton, who scored with a platinum and gold album and three No. 1 singles in the past year. "I just thank God he gave me a voice instead of big feet."
Clint Black took the Horizon Award for young stars, Highway 101 won Vocal Group of the Year for the second straight time, and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band won Album of the Year for "Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. II," the 23-year-old group's first CMA award.
Songwriters Max D. Barnes and Vern Gosdin took Song of the Year award for "Chiseled in Stone;" Johnny Gimble won Musician of the Year and The Judds captured the honor for Vocal Duo of the Year.
"We want to thank everyone because music isn't just a living, it's our life," said Wynonna Judd, who teams with her mother, Naomi, in the duo.
Strait, whose album "Beyond the Blue Moon" went gold this year, had been nominated four times before for country music's most coveted honor.
Williams, whose high-voltage music has drawn throngs of young rockers into the country fold, had been named Entertainer of the Year two straight times, but he hurt his chances for a third triumph by appearing in a drug-induced haze at a concert at Baton Rouge, La., this year.
He cursed his audience and flung his fiddle into the air as he stumbled off-stage without finishing a single song and later claimed someone spiked his drink before the show.
But Williams also released two gold albums during the year and scored a hit with a high-tech video duet with his legendary father. The video, which won Vocal Event of the Year and Music Video of the Year Monday night, features Williams singing "There's a Tear in My Beer" along with his father, whose performance is courtesy of a previously unreleased film.
Here's a complete list of the 1989 Country Music Association awards:
Entertainer of the Year: George Strait
Female Vocalist of the Year: Kathy Mattea
Male Vocalist of the Year: Ricky Van Shelton
Single of the Year: "I'm No Stranger to the Rain" _ Keith Whitley _ RCA
Album of the Year: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. II" _ Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Universal
Song of the Year (awarded to songwriter): "Chiseled in Stone" _ Max D. Barnes & Vern Gosdin
Vocal Group of the Year: Highway 101
Vocal Duo of the Year: The Judds
Vocal Event of the Year: Hank Williams Jr. & Hank Williams Sr.
Musician of the Year: Johnny Gimble _ fiddler.
Horizon Award: Clint Black
Music Video of the Year (awarded to performer and director) "There's a Tear in My Beer" _ Hank Williams Jr., Ethan Russell
Hall of Fame: Jack Stapp, music publisher; Cliffie Stone, music publisher, and Hank Thompson, singer.