Shania Twain Impresses Them Much At CMA Awards

Dixie Chicks also collect trophies as Nashville honors new class of country stars.

NASHVILLE — Country music's past and future collided at the 33rd Annual Country Music Association Awards Wednesday night, as the newfangled sounds of Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks took top honors, pop acts Jewel and 'N Sync harmonized with country veterans, and honky-tonk singer Alan Jackson stoked a controversy by defiantly performing an absent legend's song.

Twain seemed as surprised as anyone when she was named Entertainer of the Year.

"I'm not just a lap dancer after all!" the 34-year-old Canadian singer exclaimed backstage.

Despite selling more than 25 million copies of her last two albums, the singer of "You're Still the One" (RealAudio excerpt) and the recent pop hit "That Don't Impress Me Much" has hardly been a favorite with the Nashville establishment. Her sultry videos, heavy pop influence, and insistence on bypassing Music Row by writing and producing her material with her husband, rock producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, won her pop stardom but few friends in the country music industry.

Twain's successful 1998–99 tour effectively stifled those who had dismissed her as a studio creation, and perhaps gave her the all-around reputation needed to capture what she called the "icing and the cherry on the cake," the Entertainer of the Year honor. Earlier in the evening, Twain won a special International Artist Achievement award recognizing her phenomenal worldwide sales, but her later win was her first CMA trophy based on artistic merit.

After the ceremony, Twain offered an olive branch to country's past,

citing new Hall of Fame inductee Dolly Parton as "my biggest idol of all

time" and Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" as her favorite song. "It's

important to hold onto our country roots in our hearts," Twain said,

"but we change, we evolve, we come into music of our own."

The Dixie Chicks threatened to turn the CMAs into their coming-out party. The genre-bending trio of Natalie Maines and sisters Martie Seidel and Emily Robison opened the broadcast with an elaborate "Nutcracker"-meets-"Riverdance" production number, and came away with three of the four awards for which they were nominated. "Wide Open Spaces" won them Single and Video of the Year, and they took home the Vocal Group of the Year award.

Backstage, the giddy Chicks, who sold 6 million copies of their 1998 album Wide Open Spaces and whose new Fly, featuring "Ready to Run" (RealAudio excerpt), spent the last two weeks at the top of the Billboard pop chart, lived up to their reputation for liveliness and quotability. Maines said she planned to put her trophies above the fireplace because "the pretty awards go on our mantle, the ugly ones go in a box."

Not only did pop-influenced acts grab much of the CMA's prime hardware, but two much-heralded performances during the awards show featured collaborations between longtime country stars and young acts who don't even pretend to be country. In a summit of vocal groups, Alabama and 'N Sync jointly performed "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You," which was a hit for both. But Alabama lost the Vocal Group of the Year award to the Dixie Chicks.

Host Vince Gill joked, "We're gonna have to call them 'N Sank," and predicted that Alabama's Jeff Cook would soon be sporting a nipple ring.

Pop-rock singer/songwriter Jewel joined forces with Merle Haggard on "That's the Way Love Goes," a duet from Haggard's upcoming album. The crowd warmly received both crossover performances.

Alan Jackson provided the evening's lone plot twist with his surprise performance of George Jones' "Choices." Halfway through his scheduled song, a cover of the Jim Ed Brown chestnut "Pop a Top," Jackson and his band shifted into the honky-tonk legend's Single of the Year nominee. Jones had refused to play a truncated version of the song at the ceremony, igniting a controversy.

The 68-year-old Jones, known for such classics as "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "The Grand Tour," was trying to play a tape of "Choices" over his car phone for a relative when he had a near-fatal, alcohol-influenced accident in March. The song, with its themes of sin and redemption, became central to Jones' recovery.

Jackson, who covered two Jones tunes for his forthcoming all-covers album, stalked offstage at the end of his performance and declined to be interviewed. He issued a statement through a spokesperson, saying, "Had George Jones died, there'd be a 10-minute tribute [on the program]. But then he lived, and they wouldn't give him three minutes."

Young Nashville staple Tim McGraw won Album of the Year honors for the second year in a row, this time for A Place in the Sun.

McGraw tied the Dixie Chicks with three awards even though he won in just two categories. As a producer of A Place in the Sun, he collected a second trophy on the same trip to the podium. He also was named Male Vocalist of the Year for the first time.

"It's like you can get your arms around everything," the 32-year-old said of his run of success. "You keep making music, keep hoping things go your way."

McGraw also produced Jo Dee Messina's album I'm Alright, which helped the Nashville club veteran win the Horizon Award, given to the performer who has shown the most career progress in the past year.

Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Dolly Parton was near-omnipresent during the show. The singer/writer of such hits as "Jolene" and "Nine to Five" not only performed the bluegrass standard "Train, Train" but pinch-hit for the vacationing Patty Loveless during host Vince Gill's performance of their duet, "My Kind of Woman/My Kind of Man," which won the Vocal Event of the Year award.

The late Conway Twitty, whose 55 #1 singles are the most by any artist in any genre, and the late western singer Johnny Bond also were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

33rd Country Music Association Winners:

Entertainer of the Year: Shania Twain

Male Vocalist of the Year: Tim McGraw

Female Vocalist of the Year: Martina McBride

Horizon Award: Jo Dee Messina

Vocal Group of the Year: Dixie Chicks

Vocal Duo of the Year: Brooks & Dunn

Musician of the Year: Randy Scruggs

Album of the Year: Tim McGraw, A Place in the Sun

Single of the Year: Dixie Chicks, "Wide Open Spaces"

Vocal Event of the Year: Vince Gill with Patty Loveless, "My Kind of Woman/My Kind of Man"

Song of the Year: "This Kiss" (written by Annie Roboff, Robin Lerner and Beth Nielsen Chapman)

Music Video of the Year: Dixie Chicks, "Wide Open Spaces"