You can take the CMA Awards out of Nashville, but you can't take Nashville out of the CMA Awards.
Though purists worried that the soul of the Country Music Association Awards would be lost by moving the event from Nashville to New York for the first time, Tuesday's event showed that no matter where it travels, country music is country music — even in Manhattan.
"Oh my God, I love country music!" Lee Ann Womack, the evening's big winner with three awards, shouted as she accepted her award for single of the year for "I May Hate Myself In the Morning," a bittersweet ballad. Womack also won album of the year for "There's More Where That Came From" and for best musical event for her duet with George Strait, "Good News, Bad News."
Country music has been criticized at times for drifting more toward pop, and its move to New York City seemed to highlight those concerns.
But it was as if Madison Square Garden had been transformed into the Grand Ole Opry with the evening's rootsy performances. Performers from from Gretchen Wilson to Sara Evans to Alan Jackson seemed determined to "keep it country." Even country's most mainstream couple, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, seemed retro with their performance of "Like We Never Loved at All."
Appropriately, Womack emerged with the most wins: Her album marked her return to more traditional country music after a detour through pop-infused material.
Backstage, she said she hoped her wins would encourage more of her kind of country music.
"Sometimes I think we are scared of real country music but a message like what was in that song, that transcends any boundaries, and a great song is a great song," Womack said of "I May Hate Myself."
The show kicked off with a fitting performance by Big & Rich, who have shaken up country by mixing various genres, including hip-hop, in their music. The pair performed "Comin' to Your City," crooning: "We're comin' to New York City, we're gonna play our guitar and sing you a country song."
The show's highlights included a performance by Garth Brooks in the middle of Times Square. In front of frenzied fans, Brooks sang "Good Ride Cowboy," a tribute to his friend and fellow country singer Chris Ledoux, who died of liver cancer this year.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared, and other comments and quips also helped infuse the city in the show. Vince Gill did his best Bronx accent when he joked, "There's like a rule here in New York, that you can't do a show without a guy named Vinnie."
But it was mainly a Nashville party, which pop stars joined as well. Jones played piano while Willie Nelson sang "Still Crazy After All These Years," and Paul Simon joined the pair and sang "Crazy." EvenElton John conformed to country, singing "Turn the Lights Out When You Leave" with Dolly Parton. The pair also sang John Lennon's "Imagine."
Womack and Brad Paisley led all award nominees with six each, though Paisley went home empty-handed.
Keith Urban was a dual winner, winning entertainer of the year and male vocalist of the year. Toby Keith won music video of the year for "As Good As I Once Was"; Wilson won best female vocalist and Dierks Bentley won the Horizon Award for emerging artists.
Jon Randall and Bill Anderson won song of the year for "Whiskey Lullaby," sung by Alison Krauss and Paisley.
"I've probably been writing songs in Nashville longer than anybody. My first co-writer was Andrew Jackson," Anderson joked.
The CMA show's move was designed to raise its profile in New York City. While country generates plenty of multiplatinum superstars and New York is one of its top markets in terms of album sales, it lacks a major presence here, including a radio station devoted to the genre.
The move was a one-time stint; the show will return to Nashville for its 40th anniversary next year.
But country great Glen Campell, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame along with DeFord Bailey and the band Alabama, called it "a great big step.
"I'd like to see it happen a lot more because united we stand."