CMA Awards preview: Can Kenny Chesney be dethroned?
If there is a constant in country music these days, it is this: Kenny Chesney is entertainer No. 1. At least that's what we've gleamed from country's two top award shows, the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Country Music Assn. Awards, the latter of which is set to air Wednesday night (Nov. 12).
At the ACMs, held earlier this year, Chesney was named entertainer of the year for the fourth year running. Over at the CMAs, he's had a similar -- if not quite as potent -- dynasty. Chesney has taken home top honors at the CMAs for the last two years, and the last three of four, losing out in 2005 to his closest competitor, perhaps in both music and the live entertainment factor, Keith Urban.
Urban and Chesney will vie for the prize again at this year awards, which will be broadcast live for East Coast viewers on ABC at 8 p.m. It would, perhaps, be unwise to be against the man, who recently scored his fifth No. 1 album on the U.S. pop charts with the release of his "Lucky Old Sun."
After all, touring success and mainstream appeal figures heavily into the prize, and Chesney, according to Pollstar, had the second-highest-grossing tour of 2007, behind only the Police. In July, Billboard speculated Chesney would be near the top again when 2008 figures were tallied. We are, after all, talking about a man who continued to tour after breaking his foot.
So shall we go ahead and give Chesney the award? A breakdown of the pro's and con's of this years nominees follows.
Pro: The undisputed champ when it comes to country award shows and blockbuster tours. While his "Lucky Old Sun" won't figure into this year's CMAs, the island-flavored single "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" has been a hit since mid-summer and it showed the world a more laid-back Chesney.
Con: None, really, unless the down-tuned Chesney of "Lucky Old Sun," and, earlier, "Better as a Memory," doesn't pull the the same excitement out of voters. But he's the fan favorite. The one wild card: How did CMA voters perceive Chesney's lashing-out at the ACMs for opening its top prize to fan voting? Will his outspokenness win him more respect in the field, or will it be seen as time to elect someone else to wear the entertainer of the year crown?
Pro: He's won the prize before, and he's Nashville's rock 'n' roll star. With a new album on the horizon, he has the fame and the guitar skills to take the entertainer of year prize and ride it into more crossover success.
Con: He hasn't released a new album since 2006, meaning -- outside of touring -- his biggest contributions to the country landscape in the eligibility period were a greatest hits collection and a re-worked version of an old single in "You Look Good in My Shirt."
Pro: It was last year's CMAs performance of the tearjerker "Stay" that seemed to suddenly awaken mainstream music fans to the honest, simple and humbling country-pop of the duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush. A few weeks after the CMAs, the act got to dance with Beyonce at the American Music Awards. This summer, Sugarland scored its first ever No. 1 album on the U.S. pop charts with "Love on the Inside."
Con: Sugarland is not a touring powerhouse on the level of a Chesney or an Urban. In 2007, in fact, Sugarland was largely a support act for Chesney, and is still, perhaps, known as a better fit for a package tour or a festival than an arena-headlining act.
Pro: He's a legend, and his 2008 release, "Troubadour," was his fourth No. 1 album on the U.S. pop charts. He's also won a pair of entertainer of the year trophies in the past. Additionally, "Troubadour" is nominated for album of the year (as is Chesney's 2007 album, "Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates"). Finally, "Troubadour" also spawned another nominated hit, "I Saw God Today."
Con: A solid album and a successful tour from Strait are practically taken for granted. And while he has been named entertainer of the year before, it hasn't happened since 1990, and Strait has a had a string of solid releases in the last 18 years. His presence is tradition, comforting almost, but not the favorite. He has, after all, been nominated 75 times.
Pro: His four nominations may be one short of the tally racked-up by Chesney and Sugarland, but that doesn't reflect his chances here. This is the fourth-time Paisley has been nominated for entertainer of the year, and it's his best shot at winning, thanks, in part, to the self-deprecating, male-bonding video for "Waiting on a Woman," which follows up his lighthearted, fan-favorite "Online." Additionally, Paisley's other nominated cut, "Letter to Me," is a clever spin on nostalgia that looks at lessons learned rather than time missed. A shame his latest album, "Play," which is a showcase for his guitar chops, didn't make the eligibility period. Oh, he's also hosting the show.
Con: When it comes to being on the road, Paisley's tour packs 'em in, but he's still not a bankable star on the level of Chesney, or the model of consistency that is Strait. But if country is looking to pass the baton, Paisley would be a respected choice.
Pick: One would probably be crazy not to go with Chesney, but Sugarland had such a breakout year that the act deserves the honers in 2008. But will they win? Probably not. If Chensey is upset, look for Paisley to take home the prize.
As an aside: How about recognizing some country women? Aside from Sugarland the field is exactly the same as it was in 2007 (Rascal Flatts earned a nomination last year). It's not just Chesney who's repeating, it's the whole list of nominated artists. Country has more variety than the CMAs and ACMs are showing us, and it should be reflected in the telecast's showcase awards.
-- Todd Martens
Photos: Sugarland, left, and Kenny Chesney. Credi: Associated Press