NEW YORK — The CMA Awards held its first shindig in New York with its country twang intact Tuesday night, as Madison Square Garden was transformed into the Grand Ole Opry with rootsy performances from Lee Ann Womack, Gretchen Wilson, Sara Evans and Rascal Flatts.
Appropriately, Womack emerged as the leader with three wins, including album of the year for "There's More Where That Came From." The album marked her return to more traditional country music after a detour through pop-infused material.
". . . 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."
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," said Womack of "I May Hate Myself."
The Country Music Association uprooted the awards show from its traditional home in Nashville to shine in New York's international spotlight at one of the city's most famous venues.
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 influence wasn't diluted in the process.
Country music has been criticized in years past for drifting more toward pop, but it seemed the evening's performers were determined to "keep it country" in the Big Apple. Even country's most mainstream couple, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, seemed retro with their performance of "Like We Never Loved at All."
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."
The show's 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 also 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."
But it was mainly a Nashville party, which pop's stars joined as well. Jones played piano while Willie Nelson sang "Still Crazy After All These Years," and 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."
Womack and Brad Paisley led all award nominees with six each, though Paisley went home empty-handed.
Keith Urban was a dual winner, winning entertainer of the year and male vocalist of the year. Toby Keith won music video of the year for "As Good As I Once Was"; Wilson won best female vocalist. And Dierks Bentley won the Horizon Award for emerging artists.
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.
The CMA show's move was designed to raise its profile in New York City. While country generates plenty of multiplatinum superstars and New York is one of its top markets in terms of 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.