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Can Kenny Chesney beat Keith Urban at tonight's CMA Awards?

November 12, 2008 |  9:51 am

Even the most die-hard country music fans have trouble distinguishing between the awards bestowed tonight by the Country Music Assn. (CMA) and the Academy of Country Music (ACM) kudos handed out every May. Both prizes come from industry organizations with many of the same voters and, not surprisingly, many of the same winners.

Tonight's hosts — Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood — were the top vocalists with both groups last year and are competing again this year. The chief differences between the two kudos: The CMAs are based in Nashville and the ceremony is telecast by ABC; the ACMs are based in Hollywood and the show is telecast on CBS. For a list of all the CMA nominees, click here.


Kenny Chesney has taken the top prize of entertainer of the year at the ACMs for four years running and at three of the last four CMAs, including the most recent two. Tonight Chesney competes against 2005 winner Keith Urban, veteran George Strait, hot duo Sugarland and Paisley. Todd Marten takes an in-depth look at this race over at his Pop & Hiss blog. As Todd points out, "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." So there is little doubt who will win that CMA trophy again, eh?

While a dozen different prizes will be handed out tonight, the three-hour kudocast devotes a big chunk of time to performances. Among the roster of talent lined up are all five entertainer of the year nominees, as well as four of the female vocalist contenders (Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride and Taylor Swift ), male vocalist nominee Alan Jackson (the other four nominees are entertainer of the year contenders), and all five new artist nominees (Jason Aldean, Rodney Atkins, Lady Antebellum, James Otto and Kellie Pickler).

When the CMA was founded 50 years ago in Nashville (one year after the Grammy Awards parent organization, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, was formed in Los Angeles), the association's mission was to serve as an industry think tank and networking organization for Nashville music makers, not to present awards. Then along came the upstart Country and Western Music Academy, formed in 1964 by country artists who had ditched honky-tonk Nashville for the glamour of Hollywood. That group, which eventually morphed into ACM, started handing out prizes the following year. The CMAs followed suit in 1967, showcasing country talent on NBC's "Kraft Music Hall."

At that time, the only live kudocasts were the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys. The Grammys were presented in a rather dull, taped one-hour special billed as "Best on Record." Then in 1971, the Grammys went live and Paul McCartney showed up to accept an award for the recently busted-up Beatles. Both the crowd and the TV viewing audience went crazy and ABC had an unexpected 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. And the ACM award show also began airing in 1972. Suddenly, there were three live music-award shows on TV and all of them scored socko ratings.

West Coasters such as Merle Haggard dominated the early ACM awards, while Nashville faves Johnny Cash and Charlie Pride swept the CMAs. Nowadays both groups favor the same artists with one exception: Toby Keith, who's probably been punished by CMA members for not making Nashville his home. After all, that is where the CMA Awards are usually held while the ACMs are staged in Las Vegas. Traditionally, the CMAs have more viewers than the ACMs, which explains why ABC paid $9 million dollars to swipe them away from CBS.  However, both remain so popular that they're aired during the sweeps months of November and May and sometimes one or both beat the Nielsen ratings scored by the prime-time Emmys.

(Photo: RCA Records)