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Country cousins: What's the difference between CMA and ACM Awards?

November 8, 2005 | 10:01 am

Even diehard country music fans are hard-pressed to explain the difference between the awards bestowed by the Country Music Association, which presents kudos next Tuesday, and the Academy of Country Music, which passes out honors every May. Both are given by industry organizations, both are currently telecast by CBS and they have many of the same winners — and the same voters.

"The average country fan sitting in Spartanburg, South Carolina, probably gets very confused whenever one of these award shows comes on TV," says Peter Cooper, music writer for Nashville newspaper The Tennessean. "He probably thinks, 'I thought this was on just six months ago!'

"Today there's very little difference between the two groups," he notes, "but they started out as very distinct organizations."

CMA was founded first, in Nashville in 1958, just one year after the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences was formed in Los Angeles. The association's chief mission was to serve as an industry think tank and networking organization for Nashville music makers, so it didn’t rush to pass out awards. The first country music kudos were actually bestowed in 1965 by an upstart new Academy of Country Music, which was formed one year earlier by country artists who had ditched honky-tonk Nashville for glam Hollywood. By 1967, CMA was passing out prizes, too.

"The ACM was formed to support West Coast-based country music," adds Cooper. "Capital Records was out there and there were people like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who didn’t like living in Nashville and the ACM was an organization that gave them a fair shake."

West Coasters like Haggard dominated the early ACM awards, while Nashville faves Johnny Cash and Charlie Pride swept the CMAs. Nowadays both groups favor the same artists, like Kenny Chesney and Alan Jackson. With one odd exception: Toby Keith, who's probably been punished by CMA members for not making Nashville his home. "Toby is the main difference in terms of artists who get votes from one group but not the other," Cooper observes. "ACM is friendly to him, but the CMAs continue to shut him out."

Another key difference: the ACM Awards are staged in Las Vegas while the CMA Awards usually stay home in Nashville — except this year. The CMAs head to New York City for the first time ever for their kudocast next Tuesday. The program will surely be a big ratings deal in the big city. Traditionally, the CMAs have more viewers than the ACMs: 14 million compared to 12 million last year. Both are so popular that they're aired during sweeps months (May and November) and sometimes one or both beat the Nielsen ratings scored by the Primetime Emmys.

The CMAs and ACMs are probably even responsible for the modern explosion of award shows on TV. Prior to the late 1960s the only awardcasts were the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys. At that point the CMAs nabbed a spot in prime time, but NBC crammed it into its regular weekly "Kraft Music Hall." The Grammys only existed on TV in a rather dull, taped one-hour special billed as "Best on Record." The modern music awards show as we know it today was not yet created when "The Partridge Family" and "Hee Haw" were on the tube.

That all changed in 1971, when the Grammys went live in a stand-alone awardcast. When Paul McCartney showed up to accept an award for the busted-up Beatles, the crowd and TV viewing audience went crazy and ABC had a hit on its hands. Foolishly, however, the alphabet network gave up the broadcast rights one year later when the Grammys wanted to move their show to Nashville. CBS not only grabbed the rights, but also launched a live, stand-alone CMA show. The ACMs were launched in 1972, too. Suddenly, there were three music-award shows on TV at the same time and all of them scored socko ratings.

Inevitably, TV network programmers must've thought: "Hmmm … if one award show is good and three is great, then — wow — even more must be fantastic!" Thus were born the American Music Awards by a revenge-plotting ABC soon thereafter, and then new kudos sprang up from Billboard, MTV, VH1, Soul Train, etc. And there are new country music awards, too, including the CMT (Country Music Television) and Canadian Country Music awards.

The broadcast rights to the original two biggies are still considered such plums that ABC just swiped the CMA rights away from CBS for more than $9 million. ABC will begin telecasting the CMAs next November when they return to Nashville. Meantime, CBS plans to hype its continuing commitment to the ACMs by airing a special tribute to the academy's 40th anniversary on Dec. 3. Among performers will be Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn.