ACM Awards: A big night for Carrie Underwood and Julianne Hough
Underwood takes entertainer of the year; Hough wins best new artist.
The 44th Academy of Country Music Awards swung political, personal, playful and patriotic on Sunday and ultimately opted for popular in bestowing its top honor on "American Idol" winner Carrie Underwood, naming her entertainer of the year over veteran male performers George Strait, Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban.
"I've had a lot of good moments in the past four years," the Oklahoma-born Underwood said at the climax of the three-hour event at the MGM Grand Arena, "but this one takes the cake."
The award was determined for the second year by popular vote during the show at CBS.com instead of being determined as it had been in past years by the performer who sold the most concert tickets during the previous 12 months, which would have given a fifth title to Chesney.
But the ACM, in striving to boost ratings and make the event more interactive for fans, opened the voting for entertainer and new artist to the public. That helped TV-friendly faces such as Underwood and former "Dancing With the Stars"-turned-country singer Julianne Hough, who took home the new artist trophy.
It was a big night as well for Internet-savvy teen phenom Taylor Swift, who sold more albums in 2008 than any other artist in any genre, passing 5 million. Her overwhelming success contributed to her sophomore album, "Fearless," which has topped 3 million since its release in November, being named album of the year.
The giddy singer and songwriter from Pennsylvania clapped her hands over her mouth and danced in her signature cowgirl boots upon learning she'd been chosen by the academy's 4,000 voting members over Strait, Underwood, duo Montgomery Gentry and newcomer Jamey Johnson.
Outside the arena just after the show ended, 11-year-old Josei Molasky beamed a broad smile at her role model's win. Molasky not only patterned her gold lamé dress and cowgirl boots after Swift's look, she said she's been learning to play Swift's hit "Our Song" and starting to write songs of her own.
It's exactly the kind of fan motivation Nashville is looking for these days as it wrestles with declining music sales like every other corner of the music business. But the problem is trickier in country music because fans are much less likely to get music over the Internet, according to a recent market survey conducted at the behest of the annual Country Radio Seminar that took place in March.
That's given the country music capital something of a quandary over how to continue serving a CD-buying fan base at a time when the rest of the music business is moving away from the format in favor of digital music distribution.
The CBS telecast also looked to give more fans such as Molasky to latch on to with a performance by Miley Cyrus, timed to plug the new "Hannah Montana" movie, even though the daughter of country singer and actor Billy Ray Cyrus wasn't nominated for any awards.
Tough economic times coupled with strong sentiment over the war in Iraq figured into two of the night's most powerful musical performances. John Rich, half of the duo Big & Rich, sang a solo version of his new single "Shuttin' Detroit Down" that elicited cheers several times from the 11,000 fans in the MGM Grand Arena as he railed against federal bailouts to troubled corporations while family farms continue to fail by the thousands.
U.S. troops got a salute from Trace Adkins as he was joined by the West Point Glee Club with a new song recognizing what soldiers have sacrificed from the Civil War through the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan. The ACM announced that proceeds from the downloadable version of the performance will go to Wounded Warrior, a Florida-based organization the helps injured troops once they return home.
Jamey Johnson's "In Color," an homage to those who weathered the Depression, fought in World War II and sustained long-term marriages, was named song of the year. Johnson's album "That Lonesome Song," which has drawn comparisons to the work of Waylon Jennings and others of the '70s country Outlaw movement, had been chosen 2008's best by a poll of country music critics.
Reba McEntire hosted the show for the 11th year.
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Photo: Carrie Underwood. Credit: Getty Images