Most music awards shows are pro forma affairs, designed to lure ratings by adding out-of-place celebrities as presenters and focusing more on gossip and snark than music and artistry. But Wednesday night's 43rd annual Country Music Association Awards at the Sommet Center hold the promise of real history being made.
The most closely watched award will be the coveted Entertainer of the Year honor. Kenny Chesney is vying for his third consecutive award. If he wins, he passes Garth Brooks and becomes the first five-time winner of this category in the CMA's history.
This is among the most star-filled lineups ever, and it has drawn even more attention due to the presence of Taylor Swift, arguably the hottest star around currently in any genre.
Swift at 19 is the youngest performer ever nominated for Entertainer of the Year, and the first woman to land a bid since Faith Hill in 2000. Only six other women have won this award, the last being Shania Twain in 1999.
But Chesney and Swift's main challenger is Brad Paisley, who will be sharing hosting duties for the evening with Carrie Underwood.
Paisley led all nominees with seven bids, and he's right up there as a concert draw with Swift and Chesney. Though you don't hear as much lately about fellow nominee Keith Urban, he is the only person to interrupt Chesney's streak in the category. Had Urban not won in 2005, Chesney would already have shattered Brooks' mark. Instead, he's won four of the last five times.
Anyone with George Strait's glittering legacy can ever be deemed an afterthought in any category, yet he is definitely a longshot. Still, his amazing track record that includes 79 total nominations (tied with Alan Jackson as the all-time leader) and wins (22) cannot be discounted. On the nostalgic side, it was 20 years ago (1989) that Strait won Entertainer of the Year for the first time.
In any other year, there would be tons of stories written about Darius Rucker being the first black nominee in the Best Male Vocalist field since Charley Pride's heyday, but both Rucker and his record label have been downplaying any notions that he's a 21st century trailblazer. Still, coming off a year where he had three consecutive number one singles, was featured in his own CMT Invitation-only concert on Dish Network, and was an opening act on Brad Paisley's tour, Rucker's appearance in the Best Male field is significant.
However, he is also far from the favorite in a loaded category that includes Chesney, Strait, Urban and Paisley. Rucker has a better chance in the Best New Artist field, though once again he faces stiff ompetition. The discs released this year by fellow nominees Jamey Johnson and the Zac Brown Band were critically acclaimed, while Randy Houser and Jake Owen have received nearly as much praise for their stage shows and overall skills as Rucker.
Co-host Carrie Underwood has dominated the Female Vocalist of the Year award as much as Chesney has Entertainer of the Year with three straight wins. Should Underwood triumph again she ties Martina McBride and Reba McEntire (both of whom are 2009 nominees) with four wins. Powerouse singer Miranda Lambert has also been tabbed in this category.
After finishing ahead of all awards shows last season in ratings except The Oscars and the Grammy Awards, The CMA's hope to help ABC slide ahead of CBS for the week and help put ABC in position to win the November sweeps. The show begins at 7 p.m. on WKRN-2 from the Sommet Center, with a pre-show Red Carpet program at 6:30 p.m. and a post-event wrap-up at 10:35 p.m.
Award winners are determined in a final round of voting by eligible voting members of the Country Music Association.